Are hand-helds making kids dumber?

Besides being a technology writer, I am also the husband of a Montessori teacher, and we are truly concerned about the effect of tablets and smart phones.

My wife has taught very young children for about 27 years, and we have begun to observe disturbing real-time effects in kids for whom hand-delds have become proxy toys and baby-sitters. These screens are being outsourced by parents to take on the other aspects of parenting – stimulating thought-processes, imagination, language development etc.

Perhaps she will not say it in so many words, so as co-director of her Montessori school, I think it is time I did.

You may hate what I have to say, but for all of you young parents who start your day by giving your kid a screen at breakfast “just to keep her quiet,” or let a child ‘play’ with a smart phone on the way to school, you are damaging or impairing his/her development. This is not just our opinion. This is based on ongoing observations, and there is plenty of new research on the subject.

Pediatricians and brain researchers have been telling us for years that real life not its digital approximation is essential to neuron development. Issues such as attention, cognitive delays, and “decreased ability to self-regulation” aka tantrums, are common problems parents seem to face. Research is pointing to these being related to over-stimulation by technology. Many call for urgent ‘media diets’ with kids.

Check with your pediatrician, or do some research. Don’t just Google “toddlers and smart screens” but observe a child’s social behaviors when there are no screens, vs soon after a child has spent an hour on one.

Below is a quick summary of some of the arguments.

Stick them in front of the TV –if you hate them

Whenever I bring up this topic it turns unpopular, for obvious reasons.

It is unpopular to say this, not just as a communicator, but as a parent. Adults have gotten so used to using television as a baby sitter –and as a back seat pacifier in the SUV — that it offends them to hear the contra view. So here are two recent reports that makes you realize that there are better ways to engage our kids.

I had brought this topic up (“TV plus children equals brain damage“) in 2005 on this blog, and it still gets a lot of hits. Now I know why. It’s an evergreen topic, simply because there will always be dissenters who think a screen could do no harm.

There has to be a downside of where we are headed. Think about this one fact: The Kaiser Family report found that young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by one hour and 17 minutes daily –up from 6:21 to 7:38.  That is almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day! TIME magazine did a cover story on this in 2006. A lot has changed since then, obviously.

If you are too busy multitasking to read the report, here’s the podcast!

Time to teach ‘media literacy’ to kids

I have two rules in the about TV for my daughter. (1) No watching TV from Monday through Thursday. (2) No turning to watch commercials when someone else is watching a program.

I’ve imposed rule #2 in spite of –perhaps because of– the fact that I once worked in advertising. I appreciate the fact that it is the commercial material that pays for the content in the media. But since Media Buying and its cousin Media Planning  is quite a science, with a wicked –often desperate — streak parents need to be vigilant. It is not accidental that advertisers deliberately place family unfriendly message in family programs. Few know that such a thing as product placement (and such things as ‘adver-games‘) exist to “regain the attention of consumers who can avoid advertising (by) using digital video recorders” etc.

I cannot begin to count how many parents have told me how they have had to do something about preventing their pre-teen son or daughter seeing trailers of movies that have a rating of PG-17 or higher. Because my wife and I are in education, we are constantly asked about how to deal with the problem. But while we rail against TV, let’s not forget the Internet could also be an equally bad influence when children use it unsupervised.

My first response is usually a question: “Do you have a TV in the bedroom?” If the answer is yes, then there is no rule on earth (no filter good enough) that could reduce the impact of the problem. A recent study in Britain found that nearly 8 out of 10 children watch TV by themselves for two hours a day.

My second question is related to  how many hours of TV or internet. The typical answer is “Oh, about 2 hours a day…” Two hours of passive entertainment may seem benign, but it is really two hours of training a young brain to accept information with no critical perspective, no time to reflect on what is presented. Worse, it trains young children to not use alternative sources of information, entertainment, relaxation.(Libraries, trees, sleep!).

But in the end, rules and timers will not be enough. What we need to do is teach our children some basic Media Literacy. Not in some academic way about theories of Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman (Amusing ourselves to death). What’s needed is a way for parents to be able to tell their children that much of what they see and hear on television was designed to not make them think; that game shows and reality shows are far removed from reality –life simulated on studio sets. And that the emotions displayed in very realistic programs are planned, edited, and the people have been screened and coached.

Sadly, in the British study cited above, 66% of parents didn’t even know the characters or story lines of the shows their kids are watching. Experts who say TV for kids is not so bad recommend ‘co-viewing,’ but in that study 20 percent of parents who co-view approximately “sit in silence with their children.” Other studies have linked television watching to behavioral health problems.

Indeed Media Literacy  is hard, especially when it is easy to turn on the videos in the back seat of the SUV and keep the kids quiet and have an undisturbed chat on your bluetooth. 

Take a cue from the American Academy of Pediatrics which says media education for children could counter the negative effectsof watching violent TV.  Pediatricians have linked food marketing and obesity –an increase of 12 percent with one hour, increasing by 4 to 5 percent for each additional hour.  (May 2011 report).

A rudimentary lesson on media literacy would be a good start for children 4 and up. But it needs to be updated every six months. Later on, when the children grown up and you are fighting the deeper problems of over-sharing on social media, and sexting, you will be thankful you did!