So it was with surprise and amusement that I read a report this week on NBC News that states that by the age of four, half of children have their own television. Really?! I don't even have my own television, but fifty percent of toddlers and preschoolers do.
The NBC article also stated that most toddlers are starting a screen addiction before they are even a year old, and for those up to age four more than 75 percent regularly use their own mobile device. As would be expected, NBC reported that kids spend more time on digital devices than with parents or teachers. When asked why they give their child a device, the most common answers were: to keep the child busy as the parent did something else (70 percent of respondents) and to keep the child calm (65 percent).
Attempting to keep a child busy and calm are valid reasons for today's overworked, overstressed, and overscheduled parents. But what is the effect on children of having such an obsession with televisions, computers, cell phones, tablets, and anything else with a screen?
A New York Times article from this past summer gave a harrowing account of screen addiction among children and teens, which described many using devices for hours at a time without taking breaks to eat, sleep, or even go to the bathroom.
The author of the piece states that, "there's no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of 'live' action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents' cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers."
In America, screen addiction is not considered an official "clinical diagnosis," which is surprising. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the average 8-10 year old in America spend eight hours a day on the screen, and older children/teens spend eleven hours a day glued to theirs. Common sense tells us that anyone spending eight to eleven hours a day engaged with television, computers, and phones has an unlikely dependence on devices.
Screen addiction is both a personal problem and a societal one. It effects us as individuals, but it has an even greater impact on society since increasingly more people feel uncomfortable communicating verbally (preferring typing on a screen as a way of interacting) and who feel uncomfortable with any kind of lull in entertainment (preferring the instant gratification of a text or a game to the patience needed to listen and then reply to a speaking partner).
The affliction of screen addiction is now common among the youngest in our culture, and their pale, unhealthy bodies are testament to the excessive hours spent indoors and immobile. The ways to cure our device-obsessed culture will be addressed in many future articles, but a good first step is for parents to help themselves before they attempt to help their children.
So parents, as an initial measure: be an example to your children by choosing times of what I call PTO (Planned Technology Outage). You can start with something brief such as mealtimes. Let your child see you without your screens, and intentionally interact with them during PTO times.
To take things further with our Family Rules regarding television, Charles and I agreed that before we turn the television on we had to have a specific program that we wanted to watch (to avoid mindless channel surfing). This technique works equally well to combat mindless screen surfing: if there isn't something specific you are planning on doing with a device, don't even turn it on.
Resources for my Readers:
1. Here is a link to the NBC News report, "Toddlers Are Already Pros With Tablets and Smartphones, Study Finds."
2. Here is a link to the New York Times article, "Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children."
3. For those interested in reading the entire Kaiser Family Foundation study, here is the link.