When it comes to kids and tech, no one knows how much is too much — but it’s clear all these screens are changing them
The iPotty — I’m not making this up — is a toilet training seat that looks like a small school desk, on which an iPad replaces the desktop. Or there’s Fisher Price’s Apptivity seat for newborns and toddlers — a baby bouncer with an iPad mount. It’s also a real thing. Both products are flying off the shelves as fast as any of the latest tech gadgetry for adults. This, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that children 6-18 have only two hours of media a day; children 3-5, no more than an hour; and children under 2 should get no screen time at all.
It’s a wired world out there.
AAP guidelines notwithstanding, the fact remains that today’s children, aged 8 to 18, average more than seven hours a day in front of their TVs, cell phones, computers and tablets. (This according to a 2010 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study.) How bad is that for our kids?
Objective consensus can be hard to find. I asked six experts on the subject of kids, play and/or technology what all of this screen time is doing to our children, and they each threw up their hands. Some made alarming references to the vast experiment we’re in the midst of. (While it’s true that every generation grows up in a world different than the last, the landscape has never been quite as foreign as that of cyberspace.)
Parents are uncertain, too. In March, when Chris Rowan, a pediatric therapist and expert on the impact of technology on neurological development, published, on Huffington Post, a list of “10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12” — reasons that included delayed development, epidemic obesity and radiation dangers — many parents agreed (it was shared 400,000 times on Facebook), but many others reacted with the wrath of Angry Birds.
The fact is, we like our tech. A lot. But what is living in this hyper-digital age doing to our kids? How is it shaping the way they behave, play and learn? Can we as parents really manage our kids’ gadget time? For that matter, can we control our own media overuse for the good of our children?
NOBODY REALLY KNOWS
A confession: My son was among this seven-hour group — the kids who spend as much as seven hours a day on their screens. I’d often wring my hands, while he remained parked in front of the big screen, racing cars, blowing things up, building worlds and chatting, while one hour rolled into the next. Like so many of today’s youth, he found friends online when he was heartbreakingly alone in the 3-D world. To limit this minimal socialization with other middle-school kids seemed wrong. It’s where kids hang out today, I surmised. I rationalized.
What do I know of parenting in this cyber-age, anyway?
Indeed, what does anyone know? Four days after Rowan’s call-to-ban went up on Huffington Post, and perhaps in response to it, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a member of the executive committee of the AAP Council on Children and Media, published a somewhat different take in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics. In “Time to Rethink the American Academy of Pediatrics Guideline?,” he explains that research can’t possibly keep up with the speed of technological advancement. While he and his council peers continue to study the impact of new technologies on the development of children, it will be years before they have “robust data about their effects.”
However, he does plainly state that it is now his opinion — although not the official stance of the AAP — “that judicious use of interactive media is acceptable for children younger than the age of 2 years.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, an integrative child psychiatrist, has coined the term Electric Screen Syndrome (ESS) to describe a compilation of mood, cognitive and behavioral symptoms caused by too much screen time. “I don’t know at what point you can say it’s irrefutable, but the evidence is mounting that too much screen time is resulting in brain changes,” says Dunckley. She’s in Rowan’s camp; her screen time recommendations are stricter than even the AAP’s — perhaps because, like Rowan, she works firsthand with the youngest victims of our cyber-age.
Then there’s Sue Cusack, an assistant professor in the educational technology department at Lesley University, to remind us, on the other hand, of the many incredible benefits of this computer age. Cusack is the mother of a boy with severe cerebral palsy who, with the aid of computers, has been able to access both community and education. “If this was 40 years ago, he’d probably be warehoused in a sheltered workshop,” she says.
Cusack advocates for technology in schools; she maintains that computers allow for kids to be creatively expressive in ways they never could before; her passion for technology rivals the passion of those calling for bans. Her concern for children denied access to technology — “Many of the careers, many of our life needs will be technology-driven, and children who do not have more facile and seamless access will be forever disadvantaged” — equals the concerns expressed by Rowan and Dunckley, for children too much on screens.
Still, the mother of three, Cusack concedes, “I know controlling screen time at home can be a challenge.” Just as Rowan and Dunckley admit that technology can, indeed, be a very good thing.
The one thing they all agree on: Balance is imperative, and seven hours is too much.
Dunckley points to several studies in “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain,” an article she wrote for Psychology Today. According to these studies (which Cusack, like Christakis, cautions aren’t yet definitive) the brains of gaming addicts show: atrophy in the gray matter area which governs tasks like planning and critical thinking; compromised integrity in the white matter which affects internal communication within the brain; impaired cognitive functioning; altered dopamine production; and impaired dopamine receptors — creating cravings for more gaming. When we spoke, Dunckley also noted that melatonin — which signals the brain to sleep — is suppressed in the serious gamer’s brain, as well as serotonin, which affects mood and anxiety.
Her biggest concern is how such alterations might damage the brain of a child, which is still rapidly developing during those first 12 years, and whether any damage will be permanent.
“We can draw from other addiction studies. Like in teenagers with alcohol abuse, there are changes in the frontal lobe that are permanent because the frontal lobe is developing during these years. For screen time, I think one positive thing is that there’s no actual toxin in the brain, like you have with drugs or alcohol. But,” Dunckley cautions — and here, we can all agree — “it’s also a lot harder to be abstinent from technology, in our world.”
Some observable truths: Disorders like ADD, ADHD and OCD are so prevalent among children today that we know them by their initials; and depression is growing so rampantly that the World Health Organization predicts it will overtake cardiovascular disease as the primary disability of people as of 2016.
What Dunckley has discovered in her clinical practice is that many of the symptoms she associates with ESS mimic the symptoms of many common psychiatric disorders. So, before she diagnoses, or misdiagnoses, her young patients she prescribes a three- to six-week screen fast. “And generally, the child is in a better mood. They can pay attention. They can do their homework. They’re following directions. They’re sleeping better. Everything across the board is better.”
Her theory about video gaming, or any prolonged stimulus-response screen time, is that it causes a stress response that shifts the activity in the brain from higher thinking centers to lower, more primitive centers. “So your brain is functioning in survival mode, which is fight or flight. You’re not thinking clearly. You’re just reacting from an instinctual defensive position. So it really mimics chronic stress,” says Dunckley.
And suddenly I recall my nephew, 12 years earlier, a 6-year-old rough-and-tumble boy who liked nothing more than to wrestle with the big kids. One day, they let him play video games, and after 30 minutes at the controls, he was red in the face and drenched in sweat, as if he’d been rough-housing for hours.
“Are you okay?” I had to ask several times before I caught his attention.
“Ya, ya.” His little voice batted me away.
I recognized then that he was totally stressed out and I knew, instinctually, that the frenzied state he was in was unhealthy — but I felt powerless to stop it. Technology had arrived in the world’s playroom. What could I do to stop it?
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO
Eight years ago, before I owned an iPhone, I was out to dinner with my family. At the next table was a father and his daughter. She was maybe 4, in a pretty dress, and ribbons in her hair. While she ate her meal and chatted enthusiastically, her father nodded — but mostly he thumbed the screen of his Blackberry. Once she’d graduated to ice cream, he turned toward the window and the conversation pressed at his ear, and I watched, in mounting horror and heartbreak, as she grew more and more desperate for his attention. Her animated chatter escalated to singing and dancing, between the tables then up on her chair; she took long licks of the window he stared out of; tugged at his sleeve; then cried for the jerky shrug of his arm, his pointing finger, his glaring eye; until, spent, she laid herself to rest on the carpet beneath the table.
“When you are out with our children,” I raised my finger to my own device-toting husband, “I expect that you are caring for them and tending to them, not to your little toy.” I was furious! And — it is undeniable — I was forecasting.
Flash forward to January 2014 when, according to the Pew Research Internet Project, 90 percent of American adults carry cell phones; 58 percent have smartphones; and 42 percent own tablets, and suddenly that same tragic scene is playing out routinely in restaurants and living rooms across the country. Flash forward and even I have shushed my children to catch up on my latest emails or the Facebook posts of people I didn’t even like in high school.
A recent Boston Medical Center study of the impact of smartphones on the parent-child relationship, describes children physically raising their parents’ faces to get their attention, and parents kicking kids under the table for interrupting screen time. As a result of her findings — that smartphones can make for bad parenting — BMC’s Dr. Jenny Radesky is working with the AAP to create guidelines for smartphone usage in front of children.
But, considering consumer demands for iPotties and Apptivity seats, do AAP suggestions really matter?
According to a 2013 national study by the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University, almost 40 percent of American adults spend as much as 11 hours a day on their screens. A 2011 Telenav survey indicates that 40 percent of iPhone users would rather give up their toothbrushes than their phones.
Rowan suspects that the parents angered by her Huff-Po call-to-ban either assumed she was rejecting technology overall for children, and not just the handheld devices; or they were of this large population of overusers.
“Parents set the pace for tech use. It’s never a kid issue when we’re looking at tech overuse. It’s a family endemic issue,” says Rowan. She suggests that parents are assuaging their guilt about their own addictions “by putting kids on it.”
Perhaps — but, as a bonus, there’s certainly less of that maddening sleeve-yanking and face-raising. Surely, if the young ribbon-haired girl had had her own iPad, the scene would have played out altogether differently — there would have been no window-licking, no dancing, either.
But, for the young child, dancing and even window-licking are enriching experiences, learning opportunities.
Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a Lesley University professor emerita and another expert on the impact of media on children, reminds us, in a Washington Post article, that decades of research confirms that kids learn through direct play and hands-on experiences. “They need to manipulate objects physically, engage all their senses, and move and interact with the 3-dimensional world. This is what maximizes their learning and brain development. A lot of the time children spend with screens takes away time from the activities we know they need for optimal growth,” she says.
It’s simple math: If children are sleeping for nine hours; in school for six; then on video games for as many as seven, that leaves precious little time for hands-on play in the physical world. If those remaining hours are reserved for homework, piano lessons or soccer practice, creative playtime could be lost altogether.
Even without the implication of technology, children have exceedingly less free-play time than they used to. Classrooms are more structured; recesses are fewer and shorter; and even on the home front, parents stress homework and organized activities more than was the case in previous eras.
Furthermore, as The Atlantic recently reported in “The Overprotected Kid” — another story that went viral, reaffirming that parents are as busy online as their children — our preoccupations with safety have robbed our children of the sort of exploratory, independent and widely imaginative play that we reveled in as youngsters. Hanna Rosin, who authored the piece, blames sensationalism in media and a sue-happy culture for the fear that inspired Generation X to always keep Generation Y within arm’s reach and, consequently, often indoors — where the outlets happen to be.
While Rosin doesn’t much mention toys, it can’t be denied the multibillion dollar toy industry has had a major impact on the way kids play today. My mother-in-law fondly remembers attaching bobby pins together to create tiny, skirted dolls she would dance across the floor. I spent hours designing homes for Barbie: album covers made walls and ceilings; a stack of paperbacks, a bed. But to entertain my daughter: a plastic castle for Dora and interactive furniture to fill it.
But was she really entertained? Now that I think about it, Dora’s castle never saw much play. My daughter certainly didn’t spend the time with it that I spent repurposing household objects for Barbie’s use.
“Play that’s scripted by toys, by media characters or by the expectations of parents and other adults, means that the self-organized free play of children is pretty much non-existent,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and an expert on play’s history, adding that this scripted play “focuses the attention of the kid away from their own imaginative side and into being repetitive and kind of linear.”
What of programmed screen play, then, which is for the most part repetitive and generally, although not always, linear? As with all questions about technology, as pertains to its effect on children, the evidence is inconclusive. One 2011 Michigan State University study of 12-year-olds found that the more children engaged with video games, the more creative they were in writing and drawing. Another similar study at the College of William and Mary found creativity in 300,000 children and adults had been steadily rising until 1990, when it suddenly took a downturn — technology is thought to be at the root of this.
It seems that for every study that considers kids and technology, there is another to dispute its findings. Like Christakis writes: “It will be years before we have robust data.”
In my home, despite plenty — too much even — screen time, there seems to be no lack of imagination. When my daughter isn’t playing Flappy Birds or watching television, she’s teaching to a whole class of imaginary kids in her bedroom. My son writes scripts and uses his high-tech video camera to make movies in which the family stars. My teenage girl creates old school: poetry in ink.
But what I have noticed is that too much screen time seems to stunt children, socially. Brown, of the National Play Institute, confirms that the era of the pickup game is virtually gone and, with it, the naturally occurring play settings inherent to all previous generations — where children of mixed ages came together to govern in-game; where they learned complicated social skills fundamental to survival.
“The effects of that are huge,” says Brown, “in that within those naturally occurring play settings (are) the roots of empathy, the nuanced ability to sort of know what your own skills are, the capacity to deal with being excluded and then included.”
These settings in which previous generations have learned how to behave in groups; in which we measured ourselves against our peers, also helped us to know ourselves.
Self-identity is a tricky enough business in the tween and teen years, and from what I’ve witnessed in my own family, it becomes even more difficult when screen time prevents kids from interacting with each other in the physical world.
It’s easy to see how the problem is compounded when technology maims family interaction, when children begin to recognize that screens take precedence to them. Not only will this cripple their self-esteem, but it teaches them to place considerable value on their own screens.
MODELING GOOD TECHNOLOGICAL BEHAVIOR
The fact is that while they proceed with their studies and while they rally for their opposing causes, the experts agree more than they disagree, and they all say too much screen time is damaging to a child’s growth and development. They all say it’s imperative to balance screen time with other physical, creative and outdoor activities for optimal physical, mental and emotional health.
How, then, to manage our kids’ technology use in this hyper-digital age? Tech-free family meals, tech-free periods and tech-free zones in the home are a good start. Getting outside, away from the outlets, is another fine idea.
But what about the lot of us who are ourselves addicted to our own devices?
I’m reminded of those parents in the seventies who tucked lit cigarettes behind their backs and blew smoke from the side of their mouths to preach to us the dangers of nicotine. We know that “Do as I say, not as I do” parenting methodologies don’t work.
Like the smoking parents of our youth, we need to kick our own habits, first, in order to model good screen behavior — and better screen etiquette, for that matter.
In her forthcoming book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Lahey, who writes for The Atlantic and The New York Times on parenting and education, promotes self-regulation in children. In this digital age, it’s a skill that’s as important as ever.
But even Lahey admits that, where video games are concerned, things get challenging because the programs are designed to perpetuate play, there are no built-in stopping places. She advises setting clear expectations and teaching children to self-regulate through those expectations, as opposed to hovering and nagging, “Because nagging is sort of the enemy of self-regulation,” she says. In her home, when her boys use more than their allotted tech time, they lose the following day’s screen privileges.
Approaching the end of the New Hampshire winter — which is easily as long as a Nevada summer — Lahey confesses that it’s been hard to find things to do, besides Minecraft, but, she says, that’s a part of figuring out how to entertain themselves, without the screen. ”That’s part of using their imaginations.”