Kids of the 'Digital Age'

Photo source: Richard Leeming / CC BY 2.0 / MGN

ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - It seems that in an age where nearly every American adult has some form of smartphone, tablet, or other similar device, babies are almost born with the instinctive knowledge of how to use technology.

Researchers are constantly warning about the negative effects of screen-time for children. But how effective is limiting screen-time in today’s culture? Babies and toddlers watch their parents and siblings interact with technology every day, and their little spongy minds learn pretty quickly how to operate popular devices, almost without being taught.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests implementing restrictions on how much interaction a child should have with technology depending on age. They say no screen-time for children under 18 months. The 18-24 month ages should have very limited access, and 2-year-old children should not exceed an hour of screen-time.

However, some parents wonder, are these realistic guidelines to follow?

“I don't think it is realistic to expect an 18-month-old to never look at a screen,” said Tracy Malanga of Plano, Texas, and mother of two children under the age of 3. “But I think it is possible to not allow access to phones, tablets, and TV programming aimed specifically towards kids. It would be difficult, but possible. I think daily time limits for older children are mostly enforceable; I try to limit Benjamin's (age 2) screen time to an hour a day, but sometimes I allow more for various reasons.”

“Honestly, it is very challenging to keep with the recommendations, especially when your kids vary in age,” said News Channel 5’s Lauren Treme. “I try to balance it out by making sure they get lots of active outdoor time and undirected imaginary play…We do watch close to two hours a day on an average day, but I break that time up into 30 minutes segments, unless it’s a movie.”

Sensible exceptions:

Some parents, such as Shari Veal of Alexandria, mother of Adele, 9, said that sometimes technology is used to help out when a child may not be able to engage in the activities their peers enjoy.

“She is older now, and she has asthma/allergies and can’t be the typical ‘playing outside’ kid,” Veal said. “I find that a mix of fun indoor activities and interaction with screen-time gives her a balance between entertainment and normal everyday kid workload. I don't really need to impose limits on the time she spends because we balance everything in our lives in moderation. I've never considered it a problem worth thinking that deeply about.”

After polling several parents of young children, most of them admitted to introducing some form of technology or screen-time at very early ages. Some parents tried to hold off until the age of 2, but others said after a few months, their children were already showing interest in screens.

We also asked parents about potential drawbacks about limiting technology access. How would this affect a child’s learning curb if their peers are far more experienced in mobile devices?

Some parents felt limiting technology altogether may not be the best option.

“I do feel withholding technology would be a huge drawback in today's increasingly technical society,” Veal said. “A kid without access to the internet is not going to have the same level of preparedness in navigating school projects, etc. in the here and now. But also technology grows at an increasingly fast rate and it's important to be at the very least knowledgeable about the new technology being used in education, customer service, health and wellness, etc.”

“With all our other activities, I feel it would have hindered my particular children,” said Crystal Likens of Madisonville, Texas, whose children are age 5 and 2. “I wanted to bring more art and drawing into our lives. I’m not a good teacher in that matter, but we found a kids drawing channel on YouTube and my daughter has blossomed to the point of attracting attention from her teachers!”

However, limiting access at a very young age may not be such a bad thing.

“When the time comes, when they’re older, I’ll show them how to use a computer, and they pretty much know how to operate an iPhone already by watching me,” Treme said. “I don’t think withholding tech while they’re young will hurt them in the long run. Kids are smart. They’ll figure it out.”

“I don't think it is a good idea to overexpose very young babies and children to technology, but I feel that over the age of 1 or 2, it can certainly be useful in enhancing early learning when used responsibly and not in excess,” Malanga said. “However, I don't feel that withholding technology from young children is necessarily detrimental either.”

So, what are the concerns?

Speakers from TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment and Design), broke down some of the concerns researchers bring up and why parents are urged to use caution when it comes to screen-time.

Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, parent and researcher, gave a presentation on media and children, explaining how children who have over-stimulated brains under the age of 3, have greater attention problems later in life, even by age 7. Young children’s brains can become overstimulated when they watch flashy videos or quick scene changes in programming. In contrast, Christakis explained that children who had more cognitive stimulation (parental interaction, museums, and songs) were less likely to develop attention problems.

Other researchers claim that over-exposure in screen-time for young children can interrupt sleep patterns, similar to studies that warn adults to turn off their mobile devices an hour before bed to rest the mind and eyes.

Lisa Guernsey, Director of the New American Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, spoke of how children seem to zone out with television, but with certain apps or computer games, they could learn to use real-world skills that they could apply to everyday life.

Essentially, screen-time can be monitored and interactive just as a parent would be reading a book to a child. A parent could engage a child as to what is going on in a game, or ask questions as they go along about what the child understands.

Both Christakis and Guernsey pointed out that the content of what a child absorbs is a huge factor. Educational content, or conversational content, seem to be better suited for young, developing brains.
The parents that we spoke with agreed that educational content at a young age is a top priority.

“Right now, I use YouTube a lot when my 3 year old has an in-depth question, I can show her a video that explains things better than I can,” Treme said. “For example, she asked me the other day about tornadoes. So, after I explained the weather phenomenon, I pulled up a video of an actual tornado.”

“Positives include reinforcement of things we teach Benjamin: numbers, letters, manners, words, etc.,” Malanga said. “He loves watching educational shows and videos, and I think the fun songs and colorful characters reinforce his excitement for learning.”

“(Educational videos) had my daughter talking and turning heads very early in life,” Likens said. “And she now has a flash card talking app for all kinds of things relating to school that I can customize to fit her needs, this allows her to learn even without me helping. For my son, he already knows his sounds, shapes, colors, animals and so much more! I would like to say it’s all my hard work, but he responds to best and loves anything he can sing and dance to, and it sticks with him.”

Final thoughts from the families:

Overall, parents want the best for their children. And each child and family situation will be different. It’s important for parents to educate themselves on different kinds of materials that are available to their children, and adjust to an individual child’s needs.

“Watch your kids carefully and see how it affects them,” Likens added. “Are they into music, does it help them learn? Are they hands-on or visual? All these things will help in the choices you make with your children and the technology that is available to them. I’m sure as mine grow and get older I will change our rules again and again.”

“My advice is everything in moderation,” Veal concluded. “Screen-time should not be a substitute for interaction. Monitor your child's use of the internet to ensure responsible use. Most importantly, communicate with your kid. Educate them on proper use of technology and be involved with their use in a constructive way.”

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