CAROLINA PARENT QUESTIONS:
- In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics lifted their “no screens under two years of age” policy in favor of more nuanced recommendations that leave out time limits and instead urge parents to seek out educational content and preserve some screen-free family time. Do you agree with this policy change? How can parents set healthy media limits for young children (aged 1-5?)
- What are some signs that a tween or teen may have a screen addiction or be engaging in unhealthy online behavior, and what are some steps parents can take if they notice these signs in their child?
DR. COLETTE DEGALLA:
I know the AAP has changed their policy on screen time for young children and I can see why they did: screens and digital media are pervasive in this country and have become integral to daily life. The reality is that if parents are making use of the multiple forms of digital media available to us, it is very likely their children will grow up in very close proximity to it and likely begin using it very early. While I would love to think that our culture could sustain a restriction on the use of digital media with children under the age of two, the ubiquity of this technology makes a restriction seem highly unlikely to be followed. Recommendations for a healthy engagement with digital media rather than an absolute restriction seems much more likely to be followed by parents and if that’s the case, I believe the change in policy is helpful.
What’s important to remember about the use of digital media, particularly with children under the age of two, is that there is no way it will not impact the child’s developmental process given the critical brain development we know is in progress at this age. When we stop to think about exactly what’s going on during this critical period between birth and age three, it becomes more clear why it will serve us well to be intentional about the use of electronics and digital media as we raise our children. We take for granted babies will learn to talk, to walk, to use the toilet instead of a diaper, and to get along with others. But all of these basic developmental milestones depend upon active engagement with caregivers and the physical world around us. Beyond these basic milestones, there are countless other developmental achievements happening during the first years of life, from learning colors and numbers to feeling the difference between rough and smooth textures, to understanding what’s right and wrong. These developmental tasks all depend upon the physical and psychological interaction of a child with his or her environment and caregivers. When the richness of the physical world is reduced to the two dimensions of a digital screen, some of that richness is clearly lost. For example, seeing a flower on a tablet screen might be a beautiful sight but it does not compare to exploring a real flower, which has its own texture, dimension, fragrance, and living quality. So although engaging with a virtual world might not be detrimental in itself to a developing baby, it is not a substitute for interacting with the real world.
Other things to keep in mind regarding the use of digital media and screen time for young children are all of the other developmental tasks on the agenda for those first few years of life. Critical to coping and mental health, babies and toddlers are learning how to self-soothe and to regulate their own emotional state. These early years are also the time to cultivate curiosity about the world around them and the impulse to explore in order to satisfy that curiosity. Language development is critical to not only basic communication but to overall cognitive development.
Babies and young children need opportunities to develop fine and gross motor control, perceptual capacities, and a sense of balance. All of these require active engagement with the world around them. The early years are also a crucial time for learning about empathy and developing a sense of morality. While use of digital media does not necessarily prevent all of this development in itself, the more time a baby has to engage in in ways that promote development, the better off he or she will be. What is absolutely critical in the first few years of life is a healthy attachment to mother, father, or a caregiver. There is no substitute for the loving attention and presence of a baby’s primary caregiver. Digital media should not be overused as a way to distract a baby or pacify a baby when a caregiver is busy or preoccupied.
Concerning the possibility of a tween or teen being addicted to screen time or the use of technology, the first signs to note are problems in school and difficulty keeping up with daily responsibilities. If a parent is concerned that a teen or tween might have an addiction, it is important to consistently observe the child’s behavior over a period of time. Parents should make note of significant changes in overall mood – an increase in irritability, anxiety, or depression. Lying about use of digital media or trying to hide it may also occur. Withdrawal from family engagement and a resistance to activity other than the use of digital media may also be signs of a screen addiction. An unwillingness to be separated from a computer or digital device and a sense of urgency about returning to a screen when separated from it are noteworthy as well. Changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and level of physical activity, all should be noted. When an addiction sets in, all other aspects of a person’s life become secondary to the source of the addiction. There is little tolerance for any competing demands on the person and very little tolerance of distress. The screen may be used to soothe and calm oneself and the only time the addicted person may feel good is while engaged in screen time.
It is important to remember, as with any addiction, that if a child seems to be addicted to screen time, harsh judgment and anger directed at the child will not help. If a parent is concerned his or her child may have an addiction, step one in addressing it is paying attention to what’s going on with the child. The parent’s own use of technology should also be considered – is the parent modeling behavior that would facilitate unhealthy use of digital media for the child? If so, parent behavior should be modified. Limits and once again, intentional use of digital media are important. It should not be used as “filler” for free time, whether at home, in the car, or during other “idle” times. If a child seems to be struggling with an addiction, it is time for helpful interventions that address the actual problem. Power struggles and angry punishments will be detrimental to addressing the problem and can have a negative impact on the child’s self-esteem. Some first-line interventions are to talk to the child about the concern including sharing observations without judgment, offer alternative activities in which both parent and child can participate, and to spend time outside playing or exercising. When parental interventions do not seem to be enough to change the behavior, parents can seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.