Character is the key

On Facebook, someone posted a video of a mother feeding her infant child. You may wonder what’s so special about that. Well, in this video, the mother, with her toddler alongside her, was spoon feeding her infant while he lay flat on his back on what looked like a diaper change table. Other than the concern I felt about this infant (who didn’t appear old enough to be fed anything other than liquids yet) being fed while lying flat on his back, which poses a choking hazard, I couldn’t help but inwardly judge this mother for strapping a cell phone around her forehead so that the screen, on which what appeared to be a child’s movie, was playing. Her goal, I presume, was to capture her infant’s attention so that while he was transfixed to the colourful moving images on the screen, she could feed him as efficiently as possible.

What was, in my estimation, so wrong with this picture was that the mother had replaced any possible human interaction between them with a moving picture on a small screen. There was little opportunity for exchange between them. Little chance that the child would look into his mother’s eyes or hers into his. Little need for the mom to make cooing sounds or to talk to her infant above the blare of words from the screen image and no need for her to interact playfully with him.

This was one of the most blatant examples I’ve seen of replacing human interaction between parent and child – especially at such a young age – with passive interaction between the child and a screen. it was one of the best examples I’ve seen of electronic babysitting or capturing a child’s attention without any effort or creativity. However, I’ve unfortunately seen other examples of the hypnotic allure of technology and how its replaced not only parent child interaction, but also the need for a baby, toddler or child to interact with objects and learning through play toys as she develops. I often see small screens (likely parents cell phones) attached to the front bars of strollers, for example. This often replaces the stroller toys that babies can entertain themselves with, develop increased eye hand coordination by manipulating, and learn about cause and effect as a result of moving and shaking objects. What a shame, I think, to raise passive blobs, who from babyhood, are robbed of this opportunity for learning, becoming more creative, being aware of the world around them and engaging with real people rather than being hypnotized by moving images on a tiny screen.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that kindergarten children are becoming increasingly seen as the most difficult group of children to manage at school. My colleagues – teachers and those who work in the school system – share horror stories with me about out of control 4 and 5 year olds who are apparently becoming increasingly more aggressive towards their peers and adults, and whose attention its hard to keep for any length of time.

I recognize that there are other factors, other than being exposed to screens at a ridiculously young age, that affect behaviour and attention, but too much exposure to screens and technology is certainly something worth considering.

My belief is that an early introduction to screens, or an ongoing preoccupation with screens is interfering with many aspects of young children’s development – physically, emotionally and socially – and contributing to why many preschoolers are in so much trouble.

Regarding physical development, when people of any age are hypnotized or addicted to watching or interacting with screens, there is less opportunity for movement and play. Children are less inclined to go outside to play, even when the sun is shining. There’s less opportunity for physical interaction with parents even – through “rough housing” or creative play such as climbing through tunnels or building forts.

When there’s less opportunity to interact with their peers and adults, children don’t have as much opportunity to learn about picking up on facial cues in real life or reacting compassionately to someone who’s hurt.

When they do get together with peers, it’s often to sit side by side to play video games, for example.

So, when teachers report that young children in their classroom seem to be having more difficulty in regards to emotional regulation, delaying gratification, paying attention for longer periods of time and showing signs of extreme boredom when they’re not being exposed to lots of stimuli, not showing as much resilience, and having increased difficulty when needing to take turns, I believe that early and ongoing exposure to screens is one of the biggest factors impacting this.

If children spend the majority of their time in front of screens and know that they can get answers to their questions in a few seconds, they are less able to delay gratification. If they are used to being entertained by fast paced action on a small screen, how can a teacher compare without offering them everything through song and dance? If they spend less time socializing with others their age from very early on, they are less likely to learn about taking turns. If they’re less focussed on real faces and more on those that are animated by Pixar, then how can they learn to pick up on facial cues? If they’re bored when not being continually entertained, they’re more likely to act out in order to spark more action or stimulation.

So, I urge you not to strap a cell phone around your forehead to keep your baby quiet so that you can feed her or change his diaper. I urge you to put away your phone so that you can interact with your toddler, let him see how you regulate your emotions and how learning through play can be fun. I urge you to regulate the use of screens from an early age to make room for all kinds of other learning and growth.

Technology itself is not really to blame. Just as it’s not the car, but the distracted driver who is at fault for getting into an accident, so too are we, the users of technology, responsible for whether it has the power to rule our lives or not. We have the choice as to whether we will “drive” it responsibly and mindfully, so that it doesn’t get us into trouble or not. What will you choose?

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