In 2011, a "parody for the next generation" was published by author "Ann Droyd" (illustrator David Milgrim). Goodnight iPad destroys the serenity of the "great green room" of Margaret Wise Brown's beloved Goodnight Moon. Instead of a little mouse, there's a robotic rodent with antenna emitting sound waves. The comforting fire in the old illustrations is replaced with a fireplace video. A whole family of rabbits, each oblivious to the others, is sprawled around a "bright buzzing room" full of technology. And no one can sleep until the mother rabbit throws everyone's screens out the window.
Silly and over the top, of course, but this is the way most of us live now. In less than one generation, the Internet has become the realm in which we spend most of our time. It makes possible all sorts of wondrous things, but it is also a juggernaut: huge, overwhelming, and all-consuming.
We adults seem to be addicted to our smartphones and tablets. According to Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, the typical smartphone owner is on his device for three hours a day, although almost 40% of us spend up to seven hours every day immersed in our personal screens. In other words, between 20% and 40% of our waking lives is lost to checking email, texting, playing games, surfing the Web, checking sports scores, and so on.
Computers, televisions, and gaming consoles soak up even more of our time and attention. During these hours, we are not doing other things (no wonder we have no time to do our own grocery shopping, mow our own lawns, or keep up with laundry).
Of course, digital communication makes it possible to stay connected with people we love who are far away. Unfortunately, the same technology has the effect of putting distance between people who share the same home.
We are spending a significant chunk of life unavailable to people who are physically present.
But there's more. "Screens have rushed into childhood at the pace of an avalanche," writes Meghan Cox Gurdon, author of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. This change has made "children more likely to spend their time online than any other place."
According to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, the amount of time kids spent online doubled between 2006 and 2016. And since the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets, Twenge and her colleagues have recorded a plunge in young people's emotional well-being.
"We found that teens who spent more time seeing their friends in person, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, reading or even doing homework were happier," Twenge has written. "However, teens who spent more time on the internet, playing computer games, on social media, texting, using video chat or watching TV were less happy.... Every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness."
Parents can buy apps and games that promise to stimulate their infants' brains. Child-friendly devices claim to be able to teach small children their colors or their math facts. Even Parents magazine (which should know better) has gushed that "Fun and kid-friendly iPhone applications keep your tot busy and learning on the go."
These claims are seductive, but there's something the suppliers of child-oriented tech will never admit. Their products are inferior. They are no match for parents and grandparents who actually talk and read to their children. Nothing is as effective for teaching and nurturing a young mind as a fallible, yet physically present and attentive human being.
Numerous experiments show this to be true. In 2010, a team at the University of Virginia investigated the effect of a bestselling DVD that promised to teach vocabulary to infants. Participating families were divided into three groups. One group of parents watched the DVD with their 12- to 18-month-old children several times a week for one month. In the second group, the children watched by themselves with the same frequency. The third group didn't view the DVD at all, but parents were asked to introduce the target vocabulary words during normal conversation with their children.
One month later, when the children were tested, it was discovered that the DVD had no educational value at all. It didn't matter if the children had watched the DVD alone or with a parent. The words did not travel from the screen to their minds. The babies who didn't watch the DVD, but instead heard the words spoken by their parents, had learned the words.
This experiment has been replicated many times, always with the same result. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that young children learned six to eight fewer vocabulary words for each hour of baby DVDs they watched compared to children who saw no videos (presumably because during the hours of watching DVDs, they participated in no human conversations).
A 2015 study at the University of Arizona, Flagstaff, found that parents and children who played with electronic toys spoke less to each other than the parents and children who were asked to play with traditional toys like blocks, dolls, and books. The machines made the noises; the people gradually became silent. In fact, the best object for eliciting parental chatting and infant vocalizing turned out to be a picture book.
Other studies have established a huge difference in the brain activity of a child looking at a picture book and having the story read to her as compared to a child watching a video. In the former situation, fMRI scans show brain activity in all higher-order brain networks. While watching the video, however, "the brain stops doing anything, except for visual perception," explains Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "The child is seeing the story and watching it, but not integrating this with other higher-order brain networks.... Too much screen time is a setup for atrophy, or underdevelopment of these higher-order brain networks."
It's easy to hand a device to a child and tell him to "be quiet and watch this video." It lets us be lazy and self-centered. But the effects are less than optimal. In fact, screen time, especially in children younger than five or six, may stunt brain development. It may contribute to children becoming less imaginative and more passive, with greater dependence on having information and ideas given to them by an outside source.
It's a huge problem, especially as screens become smaller, more affordable, and more portable. There are fewer and fewer barriers to their use.
You know how you feel when someone ignores you in favor of her phone, or when conversation is interrupted so she can show you the "amazing video" she found on YouTube. Imagine how it feels to a child to be continually interrupted and ignored in favor of a small machine. And with increasing isolation comes feelings of unhappiness, disconnection, apathy, even hostility toward others.
Parents, it's your job to create the barriers. Please -- do it for yourself, and do it for your children.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post and found the information valuable, you may appreciate my new book, The Minimalist Family: How You and Your Children Can Find More Joy with Less, available now on Amazon Kindle and in a beautiful paperback edition.
photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash