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TV & Interactive Media

Technology has changed, and is changing, our lives at a breathtaking speed. It would be foolhardy to not question and study the effects of technologies on children.

For most of human history, humans lived in a “traditional” society that changed slowly. This meant parenting was pretty much the same from generation to generation. Grandma could teach New Mom to do what she had done and the extended family was nearby to help, model, and monitor.

Traditional societies placed parents pretty much in charge. Families ensured that the child was cared for which kept the human race going. However as we began to venture far from our families of origin, some children fell through the cracks and society reacted with legislation and social services to protect children. Rightly so, children are our future, all children not just our own.

My parents were just about the only ones who socialized me, especially before I went to school. Their modest home was their castle, no outside influences crossed their threshold or threatened their values except radio which was bland and benign. Today? The outside world comes into our home through numerous screens that are ubiquitous, relatively cheap, easy to use, and very attractive to our young.

This technological “candy” has major effects on our children, effects that we cannot control or tame. Parents must be informed about these effects and protect our children from them.

In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended parents limit TV watching in all children and zero TV exposure in children under two. This was reaffirmed in 2011. Did parents listen? No. Nearly half of children studied exceeded recommend viewing times. Hard to find a child under two who has not seen a TV screen or played with Mommy’s iPhone. Kids are in front of screens (TV, movies, video games, interactive gadgets) an average of 40 hours per week “…which is more time than they spend in any other activity except sleep.” wrote Douglas A. Gentile, PhD et al in JAMA Pediatrics.

Exposure to media has well documented negative effects: Displacement from healthy physical, social, and learning activities (outdoor play is a relic of childhood past). Children eat unhealthy foods and too much. They sleep less. We see attention problems and lower academic performances. Content effects…exposure to sex, violence, drugs, antisocial behavior, unhealthy eating and drinking…all take a toll on how out kids think and feel about the world and behave toward others. It has been estimated that by age 18 the average child will have seen 200,000 acts of violence. I was raised in a violence-free zone.

One of the hallmarks of our technological society is the speed of change. The iPad was born in April, 2010. Young kids have already latched on to such interactive gadgets. 38% of children under two have used tablets or smart phones, up from 10% two years ago according to a Common Sense Media report. Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis in JAMA Pediatrics points out how media affects both child development and behavior. “What we watch affects how we act and, at least in the case of young children, the rapid pacing of the programs can impede executive function.” This is a biggie, parents. The brain’s executive function is needed for everything from learning, behaving in a pro-social way, and inventing what will replace the iPad.

He compares features of iPad play with TV and traditional toys. Reactivity means response to what the child does. Interactivity means the device leads to the child’s response. Tailorabilty refers to changes in the device in response to what the child likes; progressivism means changing response to child’s skills; joint attention leads to child-parent interaction; portability means the child can use it anywhere; and three-dimensionality is needed for hand-eye manipulation. A touch-screen device has all of these features except three dimensions while a traditional toy has only reactivity, joint attention capabilities, portability, and three dimensions. Television has none of these features. “The simple act of reading a book to a child has all 7 features.”

Dr. Christakis notes that all interactive media add the “I did it myself!” feeling which affects the neural reward pathway of the brain. This is important to the child’s sense of accomplishment but is also addictive. The kid understandably wants the iPad over and over again.

Christakis feels that judicious, limited use of interactive media in young children might be acceptable. He suggests, acknowledging that there are no data, 1/2 to one hour a day. Thanks to one savvy mother, I have another suggestion. We grownups who had not seen each other for a long time were about to sit down for dinner. The 5-year old son who had already eaten was told it was OK to get out the iPad. He played happily and quietly for an hour. This kind of special occasion, limited use, makes sense to me.

“Parents, Wired to Distraction,”a New York Times article by pediatrician and author Perri Klass, cites a study in which researchers observed groupings of a child, an adult, and a mobile device in fast food restaurants. Of the 55 groupings only 15 adults (observers had no way of knowing whether the adult was a parent or caregiver) did not use a mobile device while with the child. There was definitely more adult-child engagement when the device was not used (duh!). What do children and young adults complain about most these days? According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist who interviewed 1000 children plus many parents and teachers, “Children of all ages used the same phrases to talk about how hard it is to get their parents attention when they need it: sad, angry, mad, frustrated.” Why couldn’t kids get their parent’s attention? The parent was focused on a screen.

My advice to today’s parents?

Limit your child’s time in front of all screens.

No TV in the child’s bedroom.

Protect your children from unsuitable content.

Do not keep a TV set on all the time or watch a lot of TV yourself.

Above all, don’t let your attention to a screen, whether a smart phone or a 42-inch TV, displace conversation with, or attention to, your children. Eye contact and talking are the way we humans connect and become close to each other. Children need strong, loving family connections in today’s complex, rapidly changing world. Connections are a “vaccine” that helps prevent us feeling lost and alone in that world. Connect with your kids! The Internet can wait.