Using a smartphone as a babysitter could have harmful effects
An electronic device may seem like a quick and easy distraction for a child, but experts say it's also a harmful one
I'd like to meet the parent not guilty of at least occasionally resorting to smartphone syndrome with a bored, cranky or restless child.
We've all seen it. Mom or Dad hands a little one an iPhone or similar such device, and immediately the gadget's most magical quality manifests: it's ability to soothe, nay, hypnotize a child while the parent shops, chats, waits in line or completes any number of tasks made easier by an occupied and relatively quiet child.
The portable screen has become a powerful parenting crutch. And, really, what's the harm in a few games of Angry Birds or Temple Run? Some of those apps actually look educational, with spelling lessons or chess strategy being taught.
But psychologist Jim Taylor, author of the new book Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-Fueled World (Sourcebooks, $14.99), argues that we are setting harmful defaults in our young children's minds with this behavior.
"What the child is learning is that whenever they get bored or cranky, they will be entertained," he said.
He sees parents giving children too much unguided access to technology at too young an age. All parents need moments of downtime or a break, he says, but these should be an exception rather than the rule.
"Most parents put kids in front of screens as a way of medicating them, so [they] don't have to work as hard," he said.
That can be a difficult truth to accept. And the ramifications may be long-term, says Karyn Purvis, director of the Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University.
"We have a great number of kids who have been raised on objects, and now that they have entered schools, they are not as good at forming relationships and they have a lot more problems with personal contact," she said. "Kids have learned the slot-machine mentality from their parents: 'I pull the lever and I get what I want.' Every child is fussy sometimes.... The child needs to learn to cooperate with the care of the parent if they're going to be effective later in life."
Jodi Tommerdahl, an education associate professor at UT Arlington, admitted that the temptation to use technology as childcare is great, especially on something like a long plane trip.
"I just got off a 2 1/2-hour flight, and my daughter was watching a movie on the iPad. I think that it should be looked at as more of an exception," she said. "Some people want peace and quiet, and they let their kid go play on the computer. I have a 6-year-old, and she would do anything for a screen...."
Taylor is quick to point out that technology on its own is neither good nor bad. A television, computer or phone is value-neutral. It's how we choose to engage with it that has consequences.
More harm than good
We know these devices are changing the ways in which our brains work, yet we don't know what the long-term impact on our children will be. But there is evidence of deleterious effects on our ability to focus as our time spent with technology increases -- an idea with which Tommerdahl agrees.
"Kids get immediate gratification from screens, and they learn to switch from thing to thing to thing," she said. "This want for immediate gratification is likely to lead to problems in attention span and behavior. The more time they are spending with those techy things means less time spent communicating with others and less time spent exercising."
Social and problem-solving skills also may remain largely undeveloped, TCU's Purvis suggests.
"This is the first generation of techno-kids -- kids can do anything and everything on the computer," she said. "They are less skilled socially, less emotionally mature, less able to make meaningful relationships last.
"If you talk to any college administrator in any university across the nation, they are seeing a new wave in the age of entitlement. By this I mean you have more and more kids coming to their school administrators saying, 'I have a C. What are you going do about it?' These are the children that didn't get the stuff during early development to have the stuff later to work for the grade."
Furthermore, there is no evidence that the early use of technology is educationally beneficial, Taylor said. "If a kid wants to learn how to play chess, get a chess board," he said. "There are better ways to learn, to develop skills, through three-dimensional human interaction and physical manipulation."
He encourages parents to discuss the role they want technology to play in their family's life. He supports the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no screen exposure before age 2. He suggests that an hour a day -- after homework and sports and certainly not during dinner -- may be a reasonable amount of tech time for some families.
"Don't put a screen in the child's room," Tommerdahl advised. "Be the family that doesn't have the Xbox, the televisions in everyone's rooms and in the kitchen. Save tech for dire emergencies."
Set the example
But, parents first need to examine their own attitudes and behavior, Taylor said. If the grown-ups are browsing the Internet on their laptops or checking their phones during meals and on trips to the park, that behavior sends a much more powerful message than the rules we attempt to establish.
"You must be the example," said Purvis. "There is a place for technology, but it must serve us, not the other way around.
"If a parent is sitting at the computer or on the cellphone while the children eat breakfast, she/he is not making optimal opportunity to nurture development, and they are giving the impression that things are more important than people, that being connected by text or computer to work is more important than being emotionally connected at the table," Purvis said. "To solve this, tell your office no calls until [you] drop off carpool. Sit at the table -- even if you don't eat breakfast, drink coffee -- and be emotionally and fully present. At night, tell your office to hold off on calling until after bedtime."
In a world ruled by connectivity, it may seem counterintuitive to try to keep our children unplugged for much of their young lives.
But those are precisely the years when children develop their habits, beliefs and attitudes about technology use, the experts say.
"With everyone's different schedules, few hours are available for you to spend time with your kids," Purvis said. "You have very limited time to make connections with your kids. Those brief moments that you have with your children is time that shouldn't be filled up with a machine. It should be filled with each other. If you want that child to come to you when they're a teenager or when they're in trouble, you have to establish those meaningful connections often when they're little."