How does screen time impact your kids developing mind?

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Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a group of friends and handed your device to the kids so that you can have an uninterrupted adult conversation? I know I’ve done this on numerous occasions. I’ve also observed both looks of approval and dis-approval from restaurant patrons for doing this. Does this behaviour make me a bad, lazy parent? Should I feel guilty about this?

What impact is mobile screen time having on our kids developing minds? Although many people have opinions, no one has a true scientific understanding of what the future might hold for a generation raised on portable screens.

‘We really don’t know the full neurological effects of these technologies yet.’ said Dr. Gary Small, director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of ‘iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.’ ‘Children, like adults, vary quite a lot, and some are more sensitive than others to an abundance of screen time.’ Dr. Small says we do know that the brain is highly sensitive to stimuli, and if people spend too much time with technology, and less time interacting with people like parents at the dinner table, that could hinder the development of certain communications skills.

So will a child who plays with crayons or colouring pencils at dinner rather than a colouring application be a more socialized person? Ozlem Ayduk, an associate professor in the Relationships and Social Cognition Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, said children sitting at the dinner table with a print book or crayons were not as engaged with the people around them, either.

‘Any time there is a massive shift in the tools of life, we don’t know what impact it will have’ says Michaela Wooldridge, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, who is researching how technology affects infant and toddler development. ‘Because these devices are so new, and technology is changing so fast, we haven’t had time to evaluate long-term outcomes’.

Wooldridge says that experts don’t yet know whether children born since the advent of tablets and smart phones are destined to be even more tech obsessed than an eight-year-old, whose early years did not include multiple portable devices. But a child’s character and interests will play a part in how drawn they are to media, as will parental habits, she adds. Based on reports from families, Wooldridge hypothesizes that parents and caregivers are citing ‘education’ as the primary objective when granting screen time to babies and toddlers. ‘The reality is that when you ask parents how the devices are being used, it is mostly to occupy or distract the child’, she says.

But plonking a smart phone or tablet in a three-year-old’s lap – without a person there to give the experience a human side – probably won’t offer much that is positive, she says. We can praise the latest and greatest apps, and make an argument that screen time is important for kids growing up in today’s tech-filled world, but kids still need to be guided. ‘The way infants and toddlers develop and learn is through social interaction, and the device itself can’t provide that. They still need the adult mediating it’, Wooldridge says. ‘Otherwise, it just becomes a distracter’.

Lisa Guernsey struggled with the topic of technology and what was appropriate for her two daughters, now 11 and nine, so much that she decided to write a book, titled ‘Screen Time’, about it. Guernsey, who works as a journalist and directs an early education policy program in Washington, DC, tells parents to look at what she calls the three Cs – content, context and child – when making media choices. ‘Instead of simply saying, ‘Is screen media bad or good for our kids?’ we have to consider the content on the screen, the context in which media is used and your child’s own personal needs’, she says. With the three Cs in mind, media can be a springboard for conversation, discovery and open-ended play. Guernsey explains that some of the positive experiences come when you open up a device with your child, learn how it works, and engage with it together. This could simply mean asking your child questions about the animals in the virtual zoo he’s creating while you unload the dishwasher.

Then come the moments when you want (or need) to pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine and read the newspaper. Mobile devices make that possible. But there is no reason why a tablet cannot be occupier at one point in the day and a conversation starter at another, says Guernsey. ‘As long as we’re maintaining a healthy ratio between moments of non-interaction and interaction, then I think we’re doing just fine’.

Parenting expert Judy Arnall recognizes the appeal and convenience of hand-held technology. However, she argues that relying on these devices deprives our kids of any chance at boredom, and boredom is what inspires and enables creativity. ‘It gives kids time to just sit and think with no distractions – something that we adults struggle to do. We need to model to our kids that it’s OK to do nothing sometimes’.

Do you have childhood memories of daydreaming as you gaze out the window of the family car during long road trips? It’s possible that your kids may not – because they’re watching TV or playing on a mobile device in the backseat instead.

It does seem to be a double-edged sword. When children are waiting in a long line or at a restaurant, handing over the mobile device is a quick way to pacify them before other patrons start judging us for their whining. But this can make us feel like bad parents for using technology to solve an age-old parenting dilemma, instead of turning it into a teachable moment about practising patience. Without the technology, says Arnall, your kids might have invented a game for themselves, engaged in conversation with grown-ups at the table or started folding napkins into airplanes (and that’s a good thing).

While your kids sit happily staring into those shiny screens, they are not engaged in any type of conversation, or staring off into space thinking, as my siblings and I did as children when our parents were talking. And that is where the risks are apparent. ‘Conversations with each other are the way children learn to have conversations with themselves, and learn how to be alone’, said Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other’. ‘Learning about solitude and being alone is the bedrock of early development, and you don’t want your kids to miss out on that because you’re pacifying them with a device’.

Ms. Turkle has interviewed parents, teenagers and children about the use of gadgets during early development, and says she fears that children who do not learn real interactions, which often have flaws and imperfections, will come to know a world where perfect, shiny screens give them a false sense of intimacy without risk. Our kids need to be able to think independently of a device. ‘They need to be able to explore their imagination. To be able to gather themselves and know who they are. So someday they can form a relationship with another person without a panic of being alone’, she said. ‘If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely’.

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