A recent article in The Telegraph describes a very scary trend: “Children as young as four are becoming so addicted to smartphones and iPads that they require psychological treatment.” Popular and professional literature are full of such warnings, yet parents continue to use digital devices to keep their babies, toddlers, and young children occupied. One in seven parents polled in a study admitted their children used digital gadgets for four or more hours a day! Although 81% of the parents surveyed expressed a concern that their children were spending too much time with digital devices, this hasn’t stopped them from allowing their children to have this access. Indeed, the article states that according to psychiatrists, “digital dependency” in adults and children has grown 30% in recent years. This addiction in young children is evident by obsession with devices and uncontrollable tantrums when the devices are removed, and leads to difficulties with social interaction as the children get older.
With so many warnings about the potential detriments of excessive screen time, why do parents still allow their infants, toddlers, and even older children have so much access to digital devices? One reason might be that parents are discounting these warnings as an overblown extension of warnings in the past about letting children watch too much TV. After all, generations of kids dating back to the 1950s watched hours of TV each day and they didn’t grow up to be TV addicts, right? While it’s a fact that when people are home, the TV is more likely to be on than off, most people don’t go through withdrawal when the electricity goes out or the TV is on the fritz and they are unable to watch TV for any length of time. But have digital devices go dark and there is very clearly a visceral reaction. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m guessing that the major difference is the way we engage with digital gadgets vs. TV screens. Unless we are binge-watching the latest Netflix series, engagement with the TV is much less intense. We move around, get something to eat, page through a magazine, cook dinner, fold laundry, knit, and engage with others while the TV is on; the TV does not capture and hold our undivided attention. In many cases, it is simply background noise to other activities in the home. Engagement with handheld devices is much more intense; it is the primary focus of attention, often to the exclusion of all other activities and interactions. This releases endorphins that excite the pleasure centers in our brains, which feeds the addiction.
Another reason for parents to rely on digital devices to occupy their children — and this one horrifies me — is that parents themselves are hooked into devices, so keeping the kids quiet with device use allows the parents uninterrupted time on their own handheld screens. As an article in Huffington Post states, over 70% of children surveyed feel their parents spend too much time on mobile devices. Remember, parents of infants and young children are themselves “digital natives,” meaning they grew up with technology and don’t know life without it.
As SLPs, we see the effects on language and pragmatic skill development caused by overexposure to screens, be it smartphones, tablets, or video games — not to mention the effects on attention, executive functioning, fine and gross motors skills, imagination, and higher level thinking. The question is: how can we help parents understand the critical importance of hands-on experiences and interpersonal engagement and how to incorporate these experiences and engagement in everyday life? Ironically enough, there’s an app for that!
Joinvroom.org is a website, app, and e-newsletter that encourages parents to be “brain builders” through simple activities already occurring in the home: mealtime, bath time, daily errands and chores, etc. Downloadable activity cards and daily videos teach parents how to engage their infants and children using eye contact, chatting, taking the child’s lead, expanding on the child’s language, and turn-taking, all in the context of daily living. No special equipment or skills are needed. Joinvroom.org is really all about being a fully present, hands-on parent. I heartily recommend this resource to all parents of infants and young children. Although geared toward children ages 5 and younger, parents of older children who have special needs will be able to use many of these ideas to stimulate growth and engagement in their children, too.
The kind of parenting encouraged by Joinvroom.org will seem intuitive to most SLPs and reflects the kind of parenting that was common before the digital age. I encourage every SLP working in early intervention and preschool to share this with parents on their caseload. And, for the rest of us, consider recommending this site to all new parents and others who would benefit from these back-to-basics parenting tips. Share this post on your social media for May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. Keeping parents and children engaged in these hands-on and interactive activities just might prevent the need for “digital detox” in their future.