My husband and I were seated comfortably in a half-empty restaurant, early in the evening to avoid the inevitable noisy crowd that frequents this place. The quiet was suddenly blasted away by a little boy’s shrill voice that seemed to penetrate the very marrow of my bones. Standing at the door, he shrieked with a sense of urgency his announcement that he had to go to the bathroom. The high ceiling and the shortage of diners transformed the room into an echo chamber and magnified his voice to a fortissimo high C.
Bill and I were ready to pack up and take the remnants of our dinner home rather than subject ourselves to any further assault on our ears and our digestion. As luck would have it, the Mom, the Grandmother, and the two children were escorted out to the patio and seated where I could keep an eye on them.
I glanced up every once in a while and to my surprise, Mom and Grandmom were chatting happily and without any interruption as the four-year-old, sitting before an electronic device, was totally involved poking at the screen with his fingers, and applauding every little success. His one and a half-year old brother appeared transfixed watching a movie on the device before him; he didn’t move a muscle the entire time. From the look on the faces of some onlookers, it was clear they disapproved. So let’s examine this issue and see what good or harm early use of electronics poses.
On the one hand, Mom and Grandmom were enjoying the luxury of going out for a leisurely lunch, perhaps a rare respite from the constant attention these little fellows demand. The electronic gadgets guaranteed undisturbed conversation. Good food, good conversation refreshes the spirit and the gadgets made it possible.
As for the little tykes, there is no question that they become proficient in the handling of the new technologies and the lessons they learn and the skills they develop may benefit them in this new modern world.
Now for the naysayers: they oppose relegating children to cyberspace when they are in the company of others. They’d rather have Mom and Grandmom engage the kids, put them in touch with the world around them – the foliage and flowers that adorned the patio, the birds pecking at specks of food on the floor, the bugs crawling along vying for the dropped bounty, the billowing clouds that form shapes and pictures above them. They insist that adults should interact with children instead of ignoring them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics weighs in on this issue based on their considerable research. Here are some of their recommendations:
Many video programs for infants and toddlers are marketed as “educational,” yet evidence does not support this. Quality programs are educational for children only if they understand the content and context of the video. Studies consistently find that children over 2 typically have this understanding.
• Unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.
• Young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens.
• Young children with heavy media use are at risk for delays in language development once they start school, but more research is needed as to the reasons.
• The report recommends that parents and caregivers:
• Set media limits for their children before age 2, bearing in mind that the AAP discourages media use for this age group. Have a strategy for managing electronic media if they choose to engage their children with it.
• Instead of screens, opt for supervised independent play for infants and young children during times that a parent cannot sit down and actively engage in play with the child. For example, have the child play with nesting cups on the floor nearby while a parent prepares dinner;
• Avoid placing a television set in the child’s bedroom; and recognize that their own media use can have a negative effect on children.
The report also recommends further research into the long-term effects of early media exposure on children’s future physical, mental and social health.
According to Dr. Brown, “In today’s ‘achievement culture,’ the best thing you can do for your young child is to give her a chance to have unstructured play—both with you and independently. Children need this in order to figure out how the world works.”