As I walked through the crowded and cavernous Union Square subway mezzanine recently, my step aligned with those of a man who was bent over as he walked with hands on the shoulders of a young boy he was guiding through rush hour commuters. The boy’s head was down. Was physically disabled in some way? No. He was playing a game on an iPad Mini, raising his head only to wail when the man begged him to stop, to pay attention to where he was going.
That moment connected, embodied, some threads connecting what I’ve heard from parents and teachers of young children, my own observations and research. Those who promote EdTech for very young children would like us to believe that the fundamental conversation is over. It is not. And, the people, like Steve Jobs, who are closest to technology tend are reported to be “low-tech parents” and have their children in Waldorf Schools.
Here are some of the questions. I raise them here and will flesh them out over the coming weeks:
- Is Digital Media particularly addictive? Could it be that some of the same elements of internet addiction that are cited regarding teens and adults could apply to some very young children? I’m talking about a situation where the person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going and if the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, s/he becomes irritable and miserable.
When I asked psychiatrist Mike Brody, who was representing the American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatrists at the American Academy of Pediatrics group that works on media issues, why he hopes that Video Game Addiction is not entered as a disorder in the DSM: “They’ll medicate it.” He also pointed out that at least pharmaceutical companies fund 70% of research.
- Why do we buy digital media for young children and/or introduce them to online games?
Many parents start out with what are considered benign “educational” games. The habits that form around digital gaming aren’t considered, in many cases, until they become apparent and cause concern
- Biases in the information and rhetoric:
The thing is: we’re talking about very young children. Even there, people at the Fred Rogers Center, The New America Foundation don’t always delineate what age group they are speaking about when they speak about children. In a survey of videos and webinars, any mention of the AAPs recommendations that there be no screen time for children under 2 and limits for older children was cited as a side bar.
- Who is speaking as expert?
Often, the people making these recommendations and decisions are not early childhood educators themselves, but software developers or journalists. It’s important to be aware of the background and expertise of the person offering an opinion or resource.
- Once we see that our well-intentioned act has unintended consequences, what can we do about it?
How can parents be models?
Teachers report children who are unwilling to come into the school because the video they’re watching in the back seat of the car, which they have seen many times, isn’t over. There are tantrums over ending media time, even when there has been an agreement. Attentive and loving parents sometimes see no alternative to media to occupy their children so they can attend to their own busy professional lives or handing their children smart phones as a matter of course whenever there is a moment of wait time in a restaurant, on public transportation and the parents say they see no way out once family habits are established.
Let me be clear: I respect point to the educational benefits of video games, the advantages of digital apps for children with learning differences or who come from homes where there is little conversation with the child. I know there is a burgeoning sense of generosity, an ease of sharing among people in their late teens and early twenties from teaching seniors at Fordham this spring. They speak a language of cooperation and innovation; they see possibilities everywhere for a life made more rewarding because of media.
What is interesting about that generation relative to younger children is that they say, in fact, that they are concerned about their younger family members who have digital media before they are six years old. They see the difference in play and interaction with family, and the focus on instantly recording activities as possibly fostering narcissistic attitudes. They wonder about the redefinition of friendship because of Face Book and other social media. They see themselves as a different generation from the children 10 years younger they themselves.
- What does the research say? Isn’t it the content that matters?
Psychiatrists certainly point to the poisonous nature of violent video games. They also say compulsive video game play can mask other disorders but what about children who display signs of compulsive online game play when the games are “educational,” bought by the parents? This is an overlooked area, though the observation that the compulsion may be masking other difficulties may be apt. A lot of the research energy goes into investigating how parents feel about media, by phone survey. How many parents will express misgivings about their household habits to a stranger on the phone?
- Where can we find help?
In terms of information, the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston is the broadest-ranging research and on all things relating to children and media use. Over the next weeks, I will share some techniques used by Healthy Media Choices in our workshops that help each family put a “personal face” on these issues. For now, I would say that putting the relationship with the child at the center of the question is the most important thing. Find out, by sitting next to him or her, what is enjoyable. Do not exacerbate the situation by making the rules about time and content a flashpoint for anger when they are broken or bent. Bring everyone in the household together for a family meeting and start with the premise that having loving time together is the priority is a good place to start. If the situation has gotten to the point where you feel that you are being verbally or physically violent out of frustration, consider seeking professional help.
Let’s not pretend this conversation is over and done….