We recently returned from two vacations, to northern Louisiana to see my daughter’s family and bring our 6-year-old granddaughter back with us for a three weeks and a camping trip to Tahoe. It wasn’t easy having an active 6-year-old but it was always wonderful. We pulled out all the plugs with swimming lessons at the high school, toys carefully saved from our daughter’s play. We had to be very creative with activities to avoid TV time, but we did watch the marvelous Mary Poppins by Disney — an extraordinary film.
In Louisiana, we went to their jewel of a zoo, tumbling/gymnastics and ballet lessons. Grandparents watched their grandchildren, but most parents were, to my GREAT dismay, on cell phones missing precious time to “watch me!”
My goal was to explain every little thing to our granddaughter — like where all food comes from on our table. I rediscovered my daughters’ book, What Do People Do All Day by Richard Scarry. In a delightful way, he, for example, explains who are the people who build a house.
We camped together in Tahoe on a small sublime lake. The phone service was bad, but on a walk in our camping area I observed two women across from each other at their picnic table and smiled to myself thinking they were playing a game. As I got closer, I realized they were on their cell phones.
The wonder of nature, swimming, riding her bike and playing with us and our dog were all our granddaughter needed, never once asking for technology. These observations from vacation stimulated me to do some research on how technology affects children and their families.
In ‘Pediatrics,” January 2015, scrutiny was given to heavy television exposure and found it negatively affects child development by displacing language and play-based interactions with caregivers. The instant accessibility and portability of mobile devices make them potentially more likely to displace human interactions and other enriching activities. Children younger than 30 months “cannot learn from television (neither do we) and videos as they do from real-life interactions. Using a mobile device before that age on tasks that aren’t educational can be “detrimental to the social-emotional development of the child.”
In 2017, Pediatric Academic Societies found striking findings--the more time children between the ages of six months and two years spent using handheld screens such as smartphones, tablets and electronic games, the more likely they were to experience speech delays.
While this study was a “first study--first look--to examine mobile media device and communication delay in children,” said Dr. Catherine Birken, senior investigator and pediatrician in Toronto, Ontario, twenty percent of the children spent an average of 28 minutes a day using screens. Every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49 percent increased risk of what the researchers call expressive speech delay, which is using sounds and words (talking, singing, etc.) which are critical for healthy development.”
UK Daily Telegraph June 13, 2014, reported rising numbers of children arriving at school with “obvious speech delays”, including the inability to sound out vowels and poor language skills. They said parents relied on tech devices to entertain their kids instead of direct conversation using descriptive words, reading and games. This suggests electronic gadgets may be to blame for a 70 per cent jump in speech problems.
Parents today are usually both working, and having had my granddaughter for 3 weeks, I understand what a juggling act it is to be a creative, patient parent and fulfill the demands our society requires. Some recommendations of this study: use devices to read a story with your child, listen to them read and discuss the images and words, ask questions, use funny voices; research best apps and set time limits for play; let your child take a photo using the device and ask them to talk about what they see; switch off devices at meal time; go for a walk with your child and describe what you see.
Dr. Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, and the mother of two small children, also wanted to find out how common it is for parents to use mobile devices around their kids. “When I talk about it with friends, everyone struggles with it,” In a small pilot study in the journal Pediatrics, Radesky and her team report: Distraction by device is very common.
The researchers surreptitiously watched 55 caregivers, parents eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants around Boston. Of the 55, 40 used a mobile device during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal. Three adults gave a device to a child to keep the youngster occupied, but mostly the grown-ups were absorbed by screens. This is setting an example.
So the eminent questions is, can we separate the existential need for human interaction from the benefits of technology?