Today I want to talk about what modern parents call "screen-time": time our kids spend on computers, I-Pads, watching television or playing on smart phones. As with most things, I'm not an extremist: I don't think that screens are entirely evil or entirely awesome. (I do think that because I am a child therapist and work with troubled children, I am slightly biased in my opinions about technology, because I see the aftermath.) So I will break this down into 2 parts: what screens do to our kids, and what screens do for our kids.
#1: What do screens do to our children?
Days without play.
Screens are captivating. I've seen many a child turned zombie by a screen. I don't have to explain this phenomenon to parents. The vacant, lifeless stare. The tantrums and hateful words when you move to turn off the screen.
This captivating quality can turn into serious problems for kids when they refuse to eat, play, socialize, or use the bathroom... all so that they can watch. As a child therapist I can't tell you how many times I've heard that a school-aged child soiled himself because he didn't want to stop playing video games or watching a television show. It's terribly common and quite troubling.
At the end of the day, if a child is not playing, they are not learning. Play helps children learn about their bodies, their boundaries, their strengths and limits, their culture and language, and how to relate to other people with empathy. When a child spends hours in front of a screen, they are not engaged in the sort of play that helps them learn new skills, process their day, and build friendships. Video games cannot replicate what is learned through interactive, social play.
Never connected, never alone.
Online socializing is creating new problems for kids as well, problems that most of their parents never had to navigate. In this new social landscape, parents often don't know how to help or guide their children.
Sites like Instagram and Facebook construct a new sort of social playing field, where the child or teen presents their online profile, often posturing and seeking approval from peers. Children are putting up half-naked pictures in an effort to fit in and be popular. The results of this can be catastrophic, with the pictures being shared widely, with the children then being taunted by classmates or worse, hunted by sexual predators.
In this online world, kids are never truly connected to one another, but also never truly alone. This is part of what makes these sites so addictive. The child's longing for connection, appreciation, and human warmth is never truly fulfilled on these sites, but at times, the longing is slightly soothed by "likes" or "shares." Kids are measuring their worth based on how many followers they have, how many likes on a picture. If they don't have sources of connection, appreciation and human warmth outside of the computer, kids are easily pulled into internet addiction.
Screens have the amazing ability to fulfill our wishes in micro-seconds. Kids who grow up on screens (like adults who spend a lot of time on screens) tend to have very short attention spans and very short patience. The screen moves at a speed that life cannot possibly keep up with. These kids are not used to waiting.
As children, we learned how to cope with boredom, because many days, things were just boring, and there wasn't a person or a screen to constantly entertain us. Kids with constant access to screens never learn to sit with themselves, to experience boredom, or to experience true solitude. They don't get a chance to tap into their amazing creativity.
Lack of wonder and intergenerational learning.
Do you remember being a child and genuinely wondering about something, and not having the answer, and not knowing where to look for it (besides maybe the Encylopedia at the library)? Do you remember that sense of smallness, curiosity, and wonder? Remember asking Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Grandpa- the "Googles" of yesteryear? Kids today don't see their elders in the same way, as knowledgable resources. Nope. They just Google it. The internet is helping children get answers faster, but they are losing important opportunities for relating.
#2: What do screens do for our children?
Lest you think I'm totally down on technology, I want to share the ways that screens can really help our children.
Powerful methods of distraction.
When children need to be distracted- which is a wonderful skill to have in the toolbox, especially when strong emotions are involved- there are few things better than screens. Screens can totally absorb people and put them in different worlds, different moods, different ways of thinking. When distraction is over-used it isn't healthy; but sometimes, I for one just need an occasional divorce with reality. Kids can benefit from the escape screens offer, too.
Cultural learning and socialization.
New trends in technology, including television shows, viral Youtube videos, smart phones, social media platforms like Facebook: these experiences are cultural. When children don't have access to any screens, they also don't have access to a sense of belonging with the majority of their peers. They lose the shared language, the inside jokes, and the overall experience of growing up amidst technology. Is it always a positive culture? I can't argue that- but I can say that experiences with technology unite a generation in a powerful way.
Information at their fingertips.
Because of screens, our children have access to incredible amounts of information. This is not disputable. This opens new worlds for kids, with an endless supply of fascinating things to read, listen to and explore. I'm particularly fond of the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement, which helps people learn practical skills through creative, low-budget projects. There are billions of ideas for fun projects on a rainy Saturday.
Assistive technology and communication.
Technological devices and apps can help children with language barriers and learning disorders to communicate. For example, consider a child with dyslexia who struggles with handwriting; a speech-to-text device can help her to explore her natural gift for writing, without being constantly frustrated by penmanship or typing. Every day more technologies are developed and designed to help our children!
Worldwide connections, new communities.
Children, and especially teenagers, are seeking to connect and to belong. Living in small or homogenous communities, teens might have interests, ideas, issues or identities that peers in their "real life" can't understand. The internet provides an opportunity for these children to connect with others, across the world, who are having similar experiences and who can provide support. I suggest to parents to monitor their child (depending on age) in reaching out on moderated community forums. When children are able to connect with kids "just like me" it has a remarkable positive impact on their self-esteem and "real life" social lives. When young people feel "not alone" and "not so weird," they are able to come out of their shell in "real life" too.