screen time

“Daddy, can I use the iPad?” What a question.

‘Well,’ I think to myself, ‘on the one hand it will give me thirty minutes to get some work done, on the other hand, it’s another half hour lost to Good Luck Charlie or whatever pre-teen show my six year old seems to adore.’

“OK, thirty minutes,” I say. Cue little brother: “Daddy can I use the iPad?” ‘Well,’ I think to myself, ‘can I get a two for one here? Both children occupied with screens? Now I’m ruining two minds – but what a break.’ My guilt has apparently abated. “Let me get my phone for you,” I say, “just thirty minutes.”

How many times does this happen across the country, the world? How much screen time are our children getting? What influence is this having on their biological, psychological, and social development? We know relatively little about the epidemiology of screen time but we know a little more about social media use among teens and young adults. For example, it is estimated that the primary method of communication used by college students today is Facebook, and that 22% of all time spent online in the United States is spent on social networking sites. In 2009, over 234 million people over the age of 13 were using mobile devices, and Twitter processed more than one billion “tweets.” Facebook reported 1 billion users in September 2012. We’re all honing in on this evolving phenomenon – the New York Times printed a devastatingly funny cartoon of young adults at a bar staring into their phones looking for social interactions, ironically standing next to perfectly good candidates for conversation. The Wall Street Journal published a report about Jordy Kaufman, a psychologist at the Swinburne Baby Lab, where he acknowledges that the influence of interactive technology on brain development is largely unknown. Clinically I can safely report that anyone less than twenty has a connection to technology that older generations simply cannot understand. My young adult patients, even the apparent luddites, are rarely separated from their phones for more than minutes at a time. Facebook is a social disaster but I think that’s another column.

So what do we know about screen time and brain development? Simple searches in pubmed, psycinfo, and other child development databases are full of studies about implementing new technology in the delivery of health care interventions. But there is virtually nothing about how iPads and other interactive technologies may be impacting infant brain development. Web searches are crazy equivocal: some speculate that our infants are profiting more from iPads than from television on account of its interactivity. Others fear that the nihilistic visions of post-modern, post-structural, post-office (ha!) philosphers are coming to fruition. To them, a gulf of technocratic isolation is widening exponentially with unpredictable implications. As per usual, the divide is fueled by ambiguity. On the one hand, parents may be offering enriched sensory experiences for their children, affording them unprecedented access to information and enrichment. But if you ask another expert, she might say that parents are abdicating responsibility for interacting with their kids and thus their children are increasingly isolated in worlds of violent video games, plastic characters fabricated by Disney, and mindless time wasting. There is nothing to say one is right and one is wrong.

What I say to inquisitive parents whose children seem to be abusing or at least overusing media depends much on the family system. I think this is true for any given topic – food, bathing rituals, sleep time, etc. If the child is using screen time to avoid something, or perhaps communicate something (ie I don’t want to be with you, Dad!), or if the behavior crosses the line into compulsive then there may be a problem. On the other hand, like eating sweets, screentime in and of itself is hardly pathological – it is a delicious treat! And, as such, can be used as a privilege or reward to be meted out in accordance with behavior. I think monitoring the social media diet is a nice idea – being mindful about the content of the shows your children are watching and the games they are playing, learning about them, and interacting about them can be a great way to teach empathy, theory of mind, narrative, plot, character development, and moral lessons. Technology is moving way to fast for us to understand its implications for our children empirically but nothing moves so fast that you can’t appreciate its impact on your child. Tune in to your kid’s media appetites with an open mind, let them explore what’s out there, and be a participant in with them and you may find some interesting clues not only about your child, but about the intensity of the technological change that is forthcoming for all of us.