What did we do with kids on six-hour road trips before iPads?
While many parents appreciate how well screens keep kids occupied and even have some developmental perks, it’s hard to avoid those nagging questions: Is the price we pay too dear to justify the frequent use of tech? How much is too much? Is one kind of tech better than another? Is it really as bad as we think it is?
There are some interesting answers to these questions—and some may surprise you.
The good: Some forms of tech promote development
Technology is a necessary component of modern life. "Using technology is essential to a child's education. To remain competitive in today's world markets, children must learn to use technology to their advantage,” says Dr. Jarret Patton, MD, FAAP. “However, all technology use should be in moderation."
Ben Graves, creator of social media-monitoring company Pharos Social, points out it is important for the parent to not only monitor how much total screen time kids are getting, but also what kind of screen time: Passive consumption—like when you veg in front of the TV, get pulled into a video game or get caught up on social media aren’t developmentally beneficial.
On the other hand, creative consumption, in which the child uses technology to learn and be creative, shouldn’t be quickly condemned.
Even then, passive media has its role. A recent study found that unless children are spending more than half of their free time playing video games, gaming has no negative impact on social development and can actually be likened to any other form of free play.
The bad: Overuse of tech can negatively affect physical, social and mental health
How many teenagers check their phones as the last thing they do before going to sleep? Even young children may settle into their beds with short Netflix movies. You might notice that children have a hard time settling down after turning off their devices. That’s because the emotional stimulation has the opposite effect of a soothing bedtime routine, and the blue light that emanates from these devices actually affects circadian rhythms by throwing off the child's entire sleep cycle.
Living on social media gives teenagers a false sense of relationships when, in fact, they are alone in their rooms. David Ezell, CEO of Darien Wellness, sees hundreds of families affected by the overuse of technology. In his practice, he notes “a lack of eye contact, decreased ability to read emotion in others and less motivation to take risks and reach out to peers because online ‘friends’ will support them.” To mitigate this, experts recommend talking with growing kids about how social media doesn't compare to real socialization.
Overuse of tech doesn’t just affect older kids. In one recent study, 20% of the infants evaluated spent an average of 28 minutes a day using screens—and every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk of delayed speech development.
“The effects of screens on very young brains is still not fully understood, but I have not seen anyone in the field suggest there are benefits.” says Ezell. Connecting eyes and expressions—which screens can’t provide—with speech is essential in picking up the nuances of language.
Bottom line: It’s going to take some work on your part
With all the different apps on the market for babies, toddlers and older kids, it's important to remember that nothing replaces one-on-one interaction with a human.
Patton says children under the age of two shouldn’t have any screen time—and it should be used in moderation for kids older than that. As for educational programs or learning apps, Patton says parents should always be present to monitor use and reinforce instruction.
Enforce screen limitations and model appropriate screen behavior. Putting your phone away when you come home from work and leaving it there until the kids are in bed is a great way to model engagement and be an attentive parent. It sends a message to children that they are more important than a call or text.
Many parents reduce screen time by canceling their cable in favor of streaming services with better parental controls. Some families also choose to have device-free meals every night or use apps to monitor and limit children’s phone and tablet use. There is also a movement that advocates waiting until eighth grade to give a child a smartphone. For communication and emergencies, flip-phones are adequate—and less addicting.
From infancy to adolescence, children grow up with technology—that’s the reality. As their guardians, it is our job to limit its use, model an appropriate relationship with technology and teach them that human interaction cannot be replaced. It’s possible for your children to have a healthy relationship with technology, and it starts with you.