By Susan Lamontagne
More than eight hours a day. That is the average amount of time children in the U.S. spend on screens. How is it even possible?
Our children are growing up in the “screen generation.” Most are entertaining themselves on some type of device – TV, phone, computer, tablet, or game console – more than we would like, and sometimes even several of these screens simultaneously. Screens have become a convenient babysitter, occupier, and peacemaker, but are we aware of the changes all this screen time may be causing in our children?
Let’s start with the ability to handle a short car ride. “Where is the movie player?” were the first words out of one child’s mouth who I picked up for a play date with my younger son. “We don’t have a movie player in the car,” I explained. “Then what do you DO?” came the desperate reply. Similarly, when I brought a group of 10-year-old boys up island to play laser tag, one of them spent the entire ride begging for his ipad. “You have five friends in the car. Don’t you want to talk to them?” I asked. “No. I want my ipad,” was his response.
In later years, we see the effects of texting on the ability of young people to handle phone conversations and job interviews. Businesses have literally cropped up as a result, to help prepare students for graduate school and job interviews. I was hired by a top university for this kind of work and was alarmed by how many students told me that they are simply not comfortable talking to people.
When we rely too much on screens – to occupy our children during car rides or in restaurants – we deny our children the ability to develop important social skills. For example, being bored helps encourage creativity and teaches you how to tolerate – with at least a modicum of civility – a long line at the grocery store or the DMV. Family dinners, where many of us learned to converse, debate, and more, are a dying breed. The majority of families today eat dinner in front of a television set.
Yet, not only do family dinners help teach our children how to socialize, kids who talk with their parents at dinner are less likely to be involved in substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and a host of other things we want our children to avoid.
When I see my own children’s reaction to screen time, I sometimes wonder if these items are akin to drug addiction. The time allotted is never enough. They must have more – and sometimes nothing else seems to matter. Banning these devices outright in a world that has embraced them doesn’t seem to be the answer. We are expected to stay “connected” and when we don’t respond immediately many people assume there is a problem.
But let’s not fool ourselves. These devices connect our children to an Internet-cocktail of endless information and horrifying content that, in some cases, should be kept at bay until much later, if ever. And now there is emerging evidence that early access to online pornography can disrupt people’s abilities to have normal relationships later in life.
So the next time your child asks to watch a movie in the car or play with your phone at a restaurant, consider whether they really need more time on a screen, or whether a little conversation may be just what the doctor ordered.
Susan Lamontagne of North Haven is a health advocate with Public Interest Media Group, Inc. and co-director of Start School Later Long Island.