Before you call me a Luddite and a old fogey, let me explain the basis for this post: every time I write about the negative effects of technology on children, my readership drops.  And the comments get more acerbic.  I’ve noticed this in real life too, when I talk to a young mother with her cell at her ear, while her three-year-old, still in a stroller, plays with an iPad, and the discussion turns to technology, or when I suggest to the mother of a tween that maybe Facebook isn’t such a good thing.   So, in a thoroughly unscientific sampling, here are my top five picks for things parents don’t want to hear.  

1.  No screens before age two

Never mind that the injunction comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics but, given that American parents seem to worry about everything starting with the certainty that their toddler is likely to stick her finger in an outlet, the way in which almost everyone ignores this bit of advice is noteworthy. Why?  Well, for one thing, screens are good babysitters.  If you have a toddler, you can probably talk/text/email to your heart’s content if your child is parked in front of a screen.  According to Common Sense Media, some 47% of children below the age of one watch television close to two hours a day.  If you think about how long a baby is awake during the day, that number is actually astounding.  66% of children under the age of two have watched television (but that number may be higher since an another study done by Zero to Three raises that percentage to 74%).  An amazing 20% of children ages 6-23 months have a television in their bedrooms!  44% of all two to four-year-olds have sets in their rooms.   10% of babies have “used” a smart phone or tablet.  These numbers are two years old and I’ll bet the percentages are now higher, given the number of “educational” apps sold for tablets.  The problem here isn’t just the baby watching the screen but what doesn’t happen because he or she is.

While apps and television may be marketed as educational learning tools, studies show that children under the age of three have “video-deficit,” meaning that they learn far less from what they see on screen than what they can learn from real-life interaction.  If you add in the effects of distraction discussed below, you might start thinking that no screens under two and perhaps older is a dandy idea.

2. Kids don’t “play” enough

This is one, combined with the observation that creativity is declining in the United States because of the decline in free play, that no one wants to hear because parenting is so bound up with achievement —yours and your kid’s—and getting “ahead.”  The Tiger Mom contingent believes in scheduling and, of course, creative unstructured play without a screen, a teacher, or a couch requires parental involvement.    In a scholarly articled entitled “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children, “ Peter Gray (who’s also a blogger on this site) correlates the loss of play (and, parenthetically, the technological activities which have replaced free play) with decreases in children’s mental well-being.  I’m going to quote him directly because what he has to say about the function of play is extremely important.  As you read, ask yourself whether watching television, being on a computer, or playing a video game develops children in the same way.

  • In play, children develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
  • In play, children learn how to make decisions, solve problems,, exert self-control, and follow rules;
  • In play, children learn to regulate their emotions;
  • In play, children make friends, and learn to get along with others as equals.

3. Multitasking is a myth

Believing this and, moreover, implementing it would actually require a parent to put down his or her smartphone first while engaging with a child, and would require much more parental oversight and supervision than many parents are willing to implement.   The truth is that humans don’t multitask except for a number of relatively automatic activities (eating and walking, for example), what we think of as multitasking are in fact tasks performed serially, usually to the detriment of the activities performed.

 The belief in the myth of multitasking influences how parents supervise their children and homework, and why televisions all over the country blare while children read and do homework.  Among 5-8-year olds who have homework, 21% do it with the television on. As reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8-18-year-olds spend almost as much time on media as adults do at work —close to eight hours a day on entertainment.  More importantly, they manage to cram a total of ten hours and forty-five minutes into those seven=plus hours since they are listening/talking/watching/texting at once. In close to half of American homes the television is on while people are doing other things, even if no one is watching; 64% of young people say that the television is on during meals.  

While the Kaiser study didn’t establish a cause and effect relationship between media use and academic achievement, 47% of “heavy” media users reported getting “C’s” or lower in school.  What’s a “heavy” user?  The 21% of young people who consume more than sixteen “multitasked” hours of media in a single day.

4. Technology distracts

Of course, if you really believe in multitasking, then you’re probably not going to believe the research on distraction either, which comes from many different sources.  It’s hard to believe but many parents seem spectacularly unconcerned about their children’s ability to focus and think.  Distraction begins very early in childhood since most adults, believing that infants and babies don’t “pay attention” to media, don’t alter their own television or other habits with a baby in the house.  According to a memo written by expert Daniel R. Anderson called “Media Multi-tasking in Early Childhood, “ as a result, “from very early ages, therefore, many infants must distinguish between highly important and relevant real-life situations and the attention-getting but largely irrelevant stimuli presented by household media.”  Even more disturbingly, another study showed that background television interrupted and affected how toddlers played with toys; they played for shorter periods with less focus.

If distraction begins in infancy, it continues through the school years and it’s not just about doing homework with the television on and screens open.  Teachers, according to a Pew research report issued late in 2012, are well aware of the level of distraction induced by technology.  While 77% of teachers questioned thought that the search tools the Internet provides had a “mostly positive effect” on research skills, a whooping 87% of them also acknowledge that these technologies create “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  64%, though, took an even tougher stance saying that technology distracts students more than it helps them academically.

5.  You may be raising a narcissist

As the work of Jean Twinge and others has demonstrated, narcissism is on the rise.  I’ve blogged about this before, especially in relation to tweens and teens, who find themselves very much swept up in the “look at me” culture created by the synergy between the culture of fame and celebrity in the United States and the ability to self-aggrandize on social media.  It’s well-known that kids as young as eight and nine are already creating profiles, updating their status, uploading photographs onto social networking sites.  I recently read about new “ books” which seem to start small kids on the “me” track early. These are apps which make your child the “star” of the book you are reading to him or her in a very literal way: your child’s face is superimposed on that of the character so he or she can be the “hero” of the story, a dancer, a pirate, a mermaid.

Why is this a good thing?  Isn’t reading or being read to about imagining the “not” you —whether that’s Clifford the Red Dog, Spot, or the room with the kittens and the mittens and the old lady in her chair?  Does your child have to see himself playing with Elmo (as he might be able to soon on a forthcoming app) rather than imagining it?

 So that’s my top five.  I’m looking forward to seeing how many of you actually read this blog.  I hope I'm happily surprised…

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The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children," Child Development, July/August 2008.,aspx

Uhls. Y/T. & Greenfield, P.M/ (2011) The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 5(1), article 1. 

Uhls, Y.T. & Greenfield, P.M. (2011, December 19) The Value of Fame: Preadolescent Perceptions of Popular Media and Their Relationship to Future Aspirations. Developmental Psychology,  Advance online publication. Dol:10.1037/a0026369


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