by Julia Steiny
I study kids and families when I’m out in public, and recently observed this crazy-making family:
Dad pushed a double stroller with a young toddler and a girl who looked too old to be caught dead in a stroller. Not that she was complaining. Mom brought up the rear with another stroller, carrying an obvious middle child.
On this lovely fall day in the midst of a lively neighborhood’s commercial street, all three kids were Gone, Elsewhere, deeply engrossed in hand-held screens — phones, games, tablets, whatever. Forget present-time experience; forget observing the world around them; never mind eye contact, smiles or exchanges with other humans.
My head screamed: You nicely-dressed, probably well-meaning parents are wrecking your kids! Do you know what the long-term effects of screen time are?!
If the parents had been smacking them around, passersby might at least have called the cops. Hardly anyone has the nerve to intervene in community misbehavior any more, at least not when kids are involved. And letting children get sucked down the rabbit hole of e-entertainment is parental misbehavior. Facts are stacking up.
This past October, a coalition of some of my favorite early-childhood advocates — the Alliance for Childhood and Susan Linn, among others — published an analysis of the current research about the effects of electronics on young children. Their report, Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children, technology and early education, is a frank condemnation of the impact of electronics on the mental and physical health of little kids. Couched in the upbeat tones of early-childhood educators, the authors conclude, with certainty, that electronics of all kinds need to be introduced very carefully, and only as kids get older.
They write, “There is no evidence to support the popular view — heavily promoted by companies that sell electronic media — that children must start early if they are to succeed in the digital age. …Great innovators in the computer industry like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not even experience computers until they were about 12. But both had wide experiences with hands-on learning when they were young. Gates was a Cub Scout, and Jobs spoke of his love for tinkering with the inner workings of radios and televisions as a boy.”
About 12 years old seems right to me. Middle school is an ideal time to add electronics to the toolkit of learning. For younger kids I would make the singular exception for charming, and only charming, movies.
Consider just this sampler of the report’s facts, which are scrupulously footnoted. By all means, examine their sources:
* Modern science confirms what the early childhood community has known for years — that infants, toddlers and young children learn through exploring with their whole bodies, including all their senses. And yet:
* Twenty-nine percent of babies under 1 year watch TV and videos for an average of 90 minutes. (?!!) Sixty-four percent of children 12 – 24 months watch TV and videos averaging just over 2 hours.
* Extensive screen time is linked to a host of problems for children including childhood obesity, sleep disturbance, and learning, attention, and social problems. And time with screens takes away from other activities known to be more beneficial to their growth and development. This applies to children of all ages.
* For preschoolers, watching just 20 minutes of a fast-paced cartoon show has been shown to have a negative impact on executive function skills, including attention, the ability to delay gratification, self-regulation, and problem solving.
* Games and digital activities that limit children to a predetermined set of responses have been shown to diminish creativity.
“Diminish creativity?” Aren’t we supposed to be the land of innovators? We’re actively crippling our own emerging talent.
* Exposure to media violence is linked to aggression, desensitization to violence, and lack of empathy for victims. Media violence is also associated with poor school performance.
‘Nuff said about the mind-numbing, socially-corrosive effects of screen time like video games.
Of course computers are superb tools when used actively, laboriously, to solve problems. Who among us does not regularly put them to work researching all kinds of questions, including how to get from here to there? They’re fabulous.
But they’re not for young children whose bodies and beings are hardwired to upload the realities of their immediate worlds. Let them learn, according to their natures, not according to advertising’s genius at selling stuff. Children need trees, friends, bikes, like that. In time, kids will pick up basic computer skills with frightening agility, so there’s absolutely no need to start early.
The report laments the successful efforts in the 1980s to ease laws limiting marketing to children. As a result, advertising, movies and TV now shape kids’ desires and imaginations, overwhelmingly. “In 1983 companies were spending $100 million annually targeting children. Now they are spending over $17 billion.”
Yes, electronic distractions free parents to take a stroll — or to make dinner or spend time on themselves — without being interrupted by a fussing child.
But the cost down the road is a tsunami of kids, from all economic brackets, who are fat, passive, irritable, oppositional, disengaged and addictive.
As a culture, we have an amazing wealth of ways to wreck kids. For too long, adult interests have trumped kids’. Where and how will this stop?
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.