There’s no question that the rise of touch screens has made our lives just a little bit easier. Need a quick recipe while scanning the pantry for ingredients? Easy to pull up on the tablet. Want to check the weather to see if you need an umbrella on the way out the door? Your smart phone has the forecast at the ready. Looking for a quick way to distract your toddler? Well, maybe not so fast.
We’re barely five years into this technology and already it’s obvious that touch screens can have detrimental effects on child development. Early studies are indicating that in the youngest of children, consistent use of these devices – which rarely promote active engagement – may stunt speech and language development. In school-age children, we see how it can affect physical activity and cause them to zone out. And in our teens, touch screens allow emotional exchanges through text to be limited and isolating.
Of course, these devices have their benefits in most age demographics, but we as parents need to start modeling appropriate use and moderation of their use.
We’re all guilty of contributing to this epidemic – myself included. In meetings with other professionals, I need to focus on the topic at hand and not check e-mail. When I’m with my family at dinner, I should resist the urge to pull out my iPhone and Google the capital of Montana just because it came up in conversation. We can all do a better job of setting a good example for our children when it comes to using these devices.
Of course, there have always been distractions from conversation and what’s happening around us in the real world. Growing up, my mother set a rule that I couldn’t bring books or my favorite magazines to the dinner table. I thought this was a terrible rule! As a voracious reader, I really wanted to know what happened next in my book or magazine article and didn’t want to pause to sit through grown-up conversation.
But it was important to my parents because if my nose was in a book, they couldn’t interact with me and learn about my day or discuss issues as a family. Digital devices make it that much easier for us to disengage from one another. They’re small, easy to turn off but always at hand for instant updates and have even more information that lure us away or distract from the conversations in the real world around you.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a statement on the use of media at home that can help families as they try to juggle this issue. First, the nation’s largest group of pediatricians notes that "television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens."
Among the very best things parents can do to promote healthy development in their infants and toddlers is to talk with them directly, read to them, make eye contact and ask questions. This is how they learn to speak and exchange with others – by doing this in the family setting early on. They can’t reproduce those practice sessions by watching a video on the iPad or even playing what may be billed as an educational game. Children don’t get the feedback they need by using those technologies. Though some programming has its merits, there is no substitute for the direct interaction with Mom and Dad.
In addition to the development of skills, I can say from first-hand experience that touch screens are depriving children of a connection with their parents. As a surgeon, I can be an imposing presence when I walk into an exam room. But in the last four or five years, I’ve noticed a transition: Kids aren’t at all anxious in my presence – instead, they often light up and jump into my arms as soon as I speak to them. It concerns me that these devices may lead to children being starved for attention while parents respond to important work emails or complete text messages instead of talking to their little ones.
We also need to be careful with older kids. They’re likely to imitate parents’ behavior and set this into an ongoing cycle. And with teenagers, we can already see the important exchanges that build relationships – asking someone out on a date, declaring first love, even breaking up – are more emotionally detached since they’re conducted through text messaging. Our younger generations think this is how relationships now work. But how can you honestly know the impact of these milestones if you can’t see someone’s face and understand how your words affect them?
I encourage families to check out the rest of the AAP’s statement on children and media as they look for guidance on how to use touch screen devices in moderation. I like their suggestion that parents create "screen-free zones" in the home – spaces free of TVs, computers, video games and smart phones – and that these devices never be allowed in children’s own bedrooms. They also suggest that older children and teens be limited to one or two hours of screen time a day – if not less – and that the content be high quality.
As for my own family, we’re working on ways we can be good examples too. My wife, Nancy, and I have made a promise about using smart phones at the dinner table. Now we both have to agree before turning to a device to look up a point on Google to settle a debate. Otherwise, remembering that Helena is the capital of Montana will just have to wait!
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.