During the fifties, television barged its way into American homes. It was a revolution—and, like most revolutions, it was expensive. In 1955, the median income was $3,400, or $65.30 a week. A Zenith table-top television cost $149.99.
Advertisers had to convince people to pay almost three weeks’ income for a toy. They pulled out all the stops, including parenthood. Motorola advertised, “How Television Benefits Your Children—TV can mean better behavior at home and better marks in school!” A Du Mont TV ad showed two children with their eyes glued to the set. The caption was “Enchanted lands…right in your home.”
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Modern parents might look at these ads and wonder if their parents or grandparents were that gullible. They should not be haughty since many of them pay more than the price of that Zenith every month for their children’s “smartphones.”
The Effects of Electronic Babysitters
Then, as now, the appeal is easy to grasp. Whether it’s 1955 or 2023, no child wants to be the only one on the block without the latest technology. From the parent’s perspective, it is easier to deal with children with a device that entertains them—at least in the short term.
Any parent can understand the temptation. There are those times when one child is begging for attention at precisely the moment when another child urgently needs care. Two children might bicker in the car’s back seat while a rainstorm demands that the parent concentrates on getting home safely. At such times, having a device that diverts their attention can feel like a lifesaver.
However, a recent U.S. News and World Report article admonishes parents that this strategy can be disastrous. The article’s title is brusque—“Using Devices as Babysitters Can Backfire on Parents.”
Dealing With Childhood Emotions
The article cites a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study’s primary author is Jenny S. Radesky, M.D. of the University of Michigan. Every parent of small children should carefully consider her words.
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“If a child is upset and has big emotions and you hand over a smartphone or tablet to distract them, it may keep the peace in the moment, but if this is the main way you soothe your child, it will be a setback in the long run.”
Dr. Radesky argues such children are less likely to develop the ability to cope with the emotions that arise from difficult situations. She claims that three- to five-year-old children feel those emotions “like a surge of negative energy or frustration and they can’t name it or wrap their head around it, so they need a caregiver’s help to say ‘this is what you are feeling,’”
Screens Limit or Delay Social Development
Dr. Radesky’s research is limited to early childhood, but the social (or anti-social) consequences of extensive screen use continue well beyond that stage. Technology use also affects how young people interact with each other. The equation is simple. The more time children spend looking at a screen, the less time they spend looking at or interacting with each other.
Social skills are not innate. They are learned. Children need to be taught not to interrupt, to allow others to state their sides of disputes, to share toys and other items, and so on. While parents aid the process by verbally instructing their children, much of this training takes the shape of verbal and nonverbal cues from their playmates.
Such behaviors as disapproving facial expressions, higher or softer volume in other children’s voices and playing together in harmony or discord establish cause-and-effect relationships in children’s minds. Those who learn to play well with others have more friends and pleasant experiences than those who act selfishly.
Screens, whether they are attached to televisions, video games or smartphones, cannot help a child deal with nonverbal cues. The screen cannot know or care whether it is operated by a single child or is shared. The actions on the screen have nothing to do with the attitudes of the children looking at it. So children that spend more time looking at screens than other children do not develop essential social skills—or develop them more slowly.
Fortunately, some of these effects may be reversible, but that requires removing the devices from children’s lives. Psychologist Nicole Beurkins reported a highly significant finding. “Research showed that just one week of engagement in typical overnight camp activities, with no screen time, led to a significant improvement in children’s ability to read non-verbal emotional cues.”
Screens and Family Life
Excessive screen time also hurts family life for precisely the same reasons. Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield have done significant research, pulling information from various other studies on young people’s use of online communications. Their article is well worth reading.
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For example, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield cite the work of Larry Rosen, a retired psychology professor at California State University and author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Some of Dr. Rosen’s studies focused on the social networking site MySpace. He found that “nearly one in three parents felt that the time their teen spent on MySpace interfered with family life. For parents of teens who spent more than two hours a day on MySpace, the share rose to one-half.”
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Interestingly, MySpace didn’t just make parents uneasy about their interactions with their children. It also contributes to the children being less connected to their parents. In another study, “Rosen and his colleagues also found that teens who spent a great deal of time on MySpace felt that they were getting less support from their parents.”
Subrahmanyam and Greenfield also referred to a study by Gustavo Mesch of Oxford University. He found that the educational use of computers for educational purposes did not affect family life. Only the use of the Internet for social purposes had adverse effects.
Complicated Issues Without Easy Answers
When looking at such material, many parents consider removing all screen devices from their children’s lives. However, many junior and senior high schools all but require students to use smartphones and computers. If their high schools don’t require it, their colleges or trade schools will.
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Comparing the work of Drs. Rosen and Mesch provide some idea of how complicated the whole subject of childhood and adolescent screen time is. Like Saint Benedict, who lived alone in the desert for three years until his wisdom drew the world to him, excluding screens from children’s lives is only a temporary measure. Just as most adults had to do in their workplaces, children will need to come to grips with a computerized world sooner or later.
So parents need to inform themselves about the risks of using computers and cell phones, especially at early ages of development. Then, they need to apply that knowledge when dealing with their children.
Photo Credit: © Maksym Yemelyanov – stock.adobe.com