This guest post is by Cindy Eckard, a Maryland parent who has spearheaded legislation in her state to create medically-sound safety guidelines for the use of digital devices in public schools.
Many people are focused on reducing screen time for children; I'm one of those people. The health risks are enormous for our kids, in a variety of ways, from their vulnerable, undeveloped eyes to their growing bodies and minds. And while I am the first to advocate for schools and parents to limit the amount of time our children spend on digital devices, per se, I am also growing increasingly convinced that our emotive relationships with these machines - which correlates to screen time - needs more exploration. What psychological needs are these digital devices filling - and what price is being paid when they dominate our lives?
Not long ago, I reluctantly signed up for a social media account, recognizing the efficacy of that medium for instantly reaching large, targeted audiences. Because I was pursuing the passage of specific statewide legislation, the timeliness of the messaging was important to me, to educate stakeholders and mobilize political support as quickly as possible.
With nearly the same speed that my messages were being sent, my own need to know how my messages were being received, emerged. It was remarkable how quickly I felt compelled to look at my hit count or check for messages. Hit that bar and get that pellet. No pellet? Hit the bar again. Ah. Pellet. Good pellet. Hit the bar. How many people reacted to my message? That's it?! Send another message. Get another pellet.
It quickly became evident that I was drawn back to the computer with growing frequency, and increased emotional investment. If my message was well received, I felt validated, vindicated, and smart. And if my message was ignored, it was certain proof that no one cared about the things that interested me most, and I felt isolated.
This, from a grown woman, with a lifetime of professional communications and technology experience.
So I can hardly imagine the emotional roller-coaster that many children are now experiencing. It's very easy to see how cyber-bullying has become such a crisis, since our children's self-esteem is now hinging on uncontrollable virtual approval, and invisible, shifting, unpredictable digital feedback. The validation we all crave is now seemingly only available to our kids in an artificial way. Even their grades are impersonally emailed to them - no more dirty looks or pats on the back from their teachers.
How uncomfortable, and insecure, then, our children must feel. Whatever approval kids may receive from one another is fleeting, fickle, and unreliable. "Friends" are not real friends. And any embarrassment is amplified, shared universally, and inescapable.
What used to happen and be forgotten in a week when we were kids, now lingers and taunts. A cell phone snapshot can persist online forever, and humiliate a child for years. There is no escape, no relief, no place to hide. It's cruel. How damaged will this generation be, from the stress of performing for each other, to avoid being "unfriended"? Social media is a sneaky little medium, that hurts. The girl at the lunch table doesn't yet know she's the target of criticism by the other kids at the same table.
So the need to stay on top of the latest, artificial developments becomes paramount to kids. Who's in and who's out and who said what and what picture was posted, and what replies were sent becomes a constant obsession. It gratifies immediately, defines group cohesion, quenches curiosity, excites, and motivates kids to check into their virtual experience nonstop, or be left out of everything. It's a sad situation, made sadder because their parents are doing the exact same thing, modeling the exact same obsessions.
Seeking artificial validation not only results in addictive, destructive behaviors, it also displaces the very experiences that would otherwise offer us authentic validation. Actual experiences are no longer valued over virtual ones. My family had an outdoor adventure party not long ago that featured a huge boa constrictor, hissing cockroaches, and a bearded dragon lizard. Although encouraged by the handler, none of the 11-year old kids at the party would even touch the critters. Instead, they pulled out their cell phones and took pictures of them. They didn't want to actually experience what a snake or a lizard felt like. They just wanted to show their friends the cool snake pictures.
Even common interactions are now being avoided because of these devices, and replaced with disingenuous placations. Technology enables us to avoid conversation, confrontation, rejection, disapproval, honesty. We can avoid any personal risk, ensuring we are always "liked." An emoticon parades as an emotion. A series of exclamation marks masquerades as enthusiasm. We LOL when we don't even think it's funny. How can a whole, healthy person of any age develop or thrive under these circumstances?
We are bankrupting our spirits, our relationships and our society. Peace and quiet are the new enemies of happiness. We need so much constant distraction these days to avoid our own realities, that gas stations now have television screens on the pumps, so that we can maintain the constant stimulation we had in our cars, in our homes, in our offices. Schools are encouraging ever more use of screens for communication among students... who are sitting next to each other in class.
With eyes on screens, we are not looking at each other. We are not noticing anything or anybody around us. So our children are losing the ability to converse or to cope with emotions, their own, or anyone else's. They require constant noise and colorful, moving pictures or they are immediately irritated, bored and - increasingly - they are anxious, depressed, suicidal. They are out of touch with their own hearts and minds, with each other, and with the natural world around them.
Limit screen time? Absolutely. We must save our children's retinas from blue light, protect them from myopia, get them a good night's sleep, and insist they go outside and play. We must make sure their growing muscles and bones aren't twisted and bent from staring into ill-fitting equipment. We must demand that schools live up to their legal obligation to provide safe and healthy classrooms.
But the price to be paid by our children because of these devices needs to be understood beyond the damage to their bodies. We need to consider our children's humanity and perspectives - their spirits. We must turn off these devices and teach our children how to build true friendships, cope with actual challenges, explore their own emotions, contribute, appreciate the natural world and enjoy the rich, meaningful experiences of real life.
To view legislative hearings on this topic, hear interviews, and access medical studies on the health risks of digital devices, visit Cindy’s website at www.screensandkids.us
For more help reducing screen-time at home and school, see Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time