At first, it was insidious. I would be at a restaurant with my family and I would see another family dining nearby. The children were using some kind of device, maybe a GameBoy to occupy them before their meal arrived. I noticed that the adults were able to have a real conversation. It was tempting to consider getting such devices for my kids as well as we dealt with children who interrupted our talk and demanded our attention- like normal children would. Growing up, I was a voracious reader, and I remember my mom making me put my books away and insisting I join the conversation at dinner. So I persisted with the rule for my children- no books or screens at the dining table.
I never had any absolute rules on computers and video games. Things were negotiable if a reasonable argument could be made. My older son made it easier on me by preferring being outdoors to video games. Luckily for me, he set a precedent and my younger son didn’t realize he could have asked us for a game system.
Now it seems like the devices at dinner time are ubiquitous, and it’s not just the children anymore. Everyone is checking their social media, texting their friends, catching up on the news and seemingly going out of their way to avoid human connection and conversation. I’ve seen kids connect by looking at each other’s social media accounts and comments they receive. That’s the entire conversation! They are often sitting in the same room texting each other instead of talking or playing, or maybe texting someone else because they don’t care to spend time with the person they are with. I find that incredibly rude, and yet I catch myself fishing my phone out to check something non-urgent when I’m with friends. I avoided social media for a long time, but I recently succumbed to Instagram, mostly to keep up with my talented artist friends. I love seeing what they are up to and sharing my own amateur watercolors. I discovered that my niece who lives in another state is an incredible artist. Although I really signed up to see what others were creating, I suddenly find myself checking on whether people are commenting on my posts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to look things up whenever I need to, read my newspapers, do my crosswords, play words with friends, check my email. I can even put in prescriptions for my patients on my phone.
My 16-year-old uses his phone to keep in contact with his friends, play games, browse some social media but also to do school-related activities. The lines are blurred between work and fun. I bought him a flip phone in sixth grade and a smartphone in eighth grade. With the smartphone came new rules (responsible use, parent access to his phone and any social media). Phones can be used to play games that are fun, entertaining, educational or destructive. I have preteen patients develop sleep problems because they won’t (or cannot) stop using the phone or playing video games. I’ve read that kids have shadow social media accounts that their parents follow, and real accounts that their parents don’t know about. I’ve read that one can hide porn behind the seemingly innocent Calculator app. Kids have always known how to fool their parents. At some point, you have to throw your hands up and hope that you taught them well. But every child’s maturity level is different. Smartphones can be dangerous in the hands of an immature, impulsive child. It can be used to bully, threaten, intimidate, access porn, post inappropriate selfies or pictures of others, destroy a reputation, or ruin a young life. I had patients (really all girls) who shared nude pictures of themselves with boys which were then forwarded to the boyfriend’s friends. The girls were traumatized, grades plummeted, and they became anxious and depressed.
Smartphones are incredibly convenient and frighteningly addictive. And we put them in the hands of young people who have not yet learned to moderate their impulses. We wouldn’t give them unrestricted access to alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, would we?
Pandora’s box has been opened! We can use our phones for good and for evil. As adults let’s put our own oxygen masks on first, examine our own use of media, and then help our kids have better balance. Let’s get them back in the yard with their friends, balance the screen time with outdoor time. Maybe some star gazing, a hike, have real adventures.
For American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on Children and Media https://tinyurl.com/y95q9w4c
And if you really want to learn about the importance of play in children’s lives I recommend Malavika Kapur’s book “What’s the Hurry? Let Children be Children”. Disclaimer- she is my mom. https://tinyurl.com/ycx97ke3
http://Other interesting articles https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley.html https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/digital-divide-screens-schools.html https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/business/media/google-youtube-children-data.html
Svapna is a pediatrician, mom and a wife. She is in private practice and is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics Medical College of Wisconsin and Clinical Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is an immunization advocate and Director of Immunize Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices.
She loves to teach medical students and residents, was awarded the Best Doctors in America 2010- 2019. She is coauthor of a textbook –Pediatric Decision Making Strategies. She likes to garden and dabbles in watercolors in her free time. She’s still trying to have it all and achieve balance in her life.