We all know how skilled children are with electronic devices. We see toddlers, who haven’t yet mastered the art of walking, that seem to have been born with an innate understanding of how to properly launch apps and play games on mommy’s cell phone or daddy’s tablet, or even their very own ‘kid friendly’ device.
It’s likely you’ve seen a young child acting out at a restaurant or throwing a tantrum. Their mom or dad quickly rummages through their things to pull out a tablet and hand it to them. A tablet or smartphone just may be the most technologically advanced pacifier we’ve ever seen — and it is almost guaranteed to work.
But at what cost does this come for our children? Are there potential risks that we are not yet aware of? Is using a screen to keep your child busy and entertained actually damaging them or delaying their social development?
Psychologist Sue Palmer Offers Some Insight
10 years ago, Sue Palmer wrote a book called Toxic Childhood, which warned of the dangers too much screen time posed for children’s physical and mental health. It seems her vision was true. According to Palmer in an article written for the Daily Mail:
“My fears have been realised. Though I was one of the first to foresee how insidiously technology would penetrate youngsters’ lives, even I’ve been stunned at how quickly even the tiniest have become slaves to screens – and how utterly older ones are defined by their virtual personas.”
On average, children today spend between five to six hours a day staring at screens, whether on their smartphones, tablets, computers, or televisions. Many do double duty, watching television while surfing the web on their phone or computer.
Children have embraced technology just as quickly as it has evolved, and parents are finding it difficult just to keep up, never mind control it. Because this kind of portable (and addictive) technology is still relatively new, today’s children are much like guinea pigs in an unwitting experiment — the longterm effects of which have yet to be discovered.
Palmer, along with other experts in childhood development, has seen a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, the drug most commonly prescribed for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. A four-fold increase in less than a decade, in fact. This is certainly something to take note of.
We can likely even see these attention defecit issues in ourselves as well. Not so long ago, we would read lengthy articles with ease or sit down and watch a five minute video thinking it was a fun way to pass a brief period of time. Nowadays, we still want the information, but we want to receive it as quickly and efficiently as possible. We often only read titles or headings for articles and assume we know the full story, and unless a movie is really captivating, we may even find it difficult to sit through the whole two hours without grabbing for our smartphone a few times just to mindlessly scroll through our newsfeed.
According to Palmer’s research, excessive screen time can be linked to obesity, sleep disorders, poor social skills, aggression, depression, and under achievement in school. This leaves little wonder that the recent boom in smartphones and tablets has coincided with the weakening of mental and physical health of children of all ages.
More research showed that 10% of children under four are put to bed with a tablet or smartphone to play with as they fall asleep. Another study showed that of families with young children that also owned tablets, one third of the children under three had their very own tablets to play with. Baby shops even sell specific merchandise designed around tablet use, such as ‘apptivity seats,’ which a tablet can be slotted into to keep toddlers entertained.
You may be surprised to know that Steve Jobs did not let his own children have iPads. Had this information gone public, perhaps other parents would have explored his reasoning and followed suit.
How Else Is This Epidemic Affecting Children?
The problem isn’t just that screens are affecting our children, or what they are doing while on them — indeed, one could argue that much of their screen time includes playing educational games that teach math, art, or spelling — but rather, and most importantly, these screens are replacing experiences that they would likely otherwise be having in real life. Experiences that will shape them for the rest of their live.
Today’s children have far fewer opportunities to really play, and to learn through experience — to learn through making mistakes. They are missing out on a critical time of social development, a time when they should be learning how to get along with their peers and how to interact with adults and authority figures.
Screen time is also eliminating the need for imagination, which is one of the most exciting gifts a child possesses.
But real play is a biological necessity. One psychologist told me it was ‘as vital for healthy development as food or sleep’.If the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses aren’t developed in early childhood, it’s difficult to revive them later. A whole generation could grow up without the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships – all because of endless screen-time.
Playing helps children develop initiative, problem-solving skills, self-confidence, perseverance, and resilience. And playing with other children is essential for their emotional development, helping them develop empathy and compassion for others. Through play, children learn firsthand how the world works.
So, What Can You Do?
According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, children under two years of age should not be given any screen time whatsoever. Above two years of age, they advise no more than two hours per day.
Play with your children. I know we are all endlessly busy keeping up with the rigours of modern life, and giving your child a tablet while you prepare dinner, or do laundry, or shop for groceries, or complete any other of the thousand tasks you face each day, affords you some much-needed time. But, assuming they are old enough, consider including them in these activities. Do what you can to encourage them to ask questions and learn without a screen in their face. Our children are the future decision makers and leaders of this Earth. Let’s help to ensure they do the best job possible.
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