One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was the face of a young boy as his mother arrived to take him home from a daily after-school program. He wasn’t more than 7 years old and, as usual, had been away from his family and home for about 12 hours.
His mother was an attractive woman who wore a business suit and held a phone against her ear as she looked for her son. His face lit up with happiness when he first saw her come in the door. As he ran to her, she waved at him to follow, turned around and walked out, still talking on her phone. Because she couldn’t see him, she didn’t notice the expression on his face had turned from joyous anticipation to extreme disappointment and sorrow.
Today, there are cafeterias full of business colleagues who don’t say a word to one another as they scan their phones. In contrast, I remember when break rooms were filled with co-workers who laughed all through lunch, exchanged stories about their lives and developed close friendships.
Although the internet and electronics can bring people together, overuse of our devices can separate us into isolated, impenetrable units of aloneness. That can have serious consequences, especially for the young. And the effects start early.
Too many children are now barraged with noise and artificial activities when they’re infants. Their cribs are filled with toys with bright lights, sounds and movement. When they grow out of their cribs, they’re regularly exposed to flickering television images and sounds that are constantly changing. Silence is almost non-existent in their young lives. I’ve even seen babies as young as 6 months given iPads to keep them from crying. One may wonder how that amount of distraction affects their ability to explore the world, create, notice subtle facial expressions, communicate, listen and relate to others.
As they get older, many children become addicted to social media, video games and other activities made possible by their computers or cellphones. But does it hurt them?
“Children and Electronic Media: How Much is Too Much?,” a June 2015 article published by the American Psychological Association, cited researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine, National Institute of Health and California Pacific Medical Center who discovered “statistically significant associations between greater media exposure with negative health outcomes such as obesity, tobacco use, sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, and low academic achievement.”
Other mental health experts, doctors and university researchers reached the same conclusions.
Because of the recent and rapid increase in adolescent obesity, depression, suicide attempts, sleep deprivation, cyber-bullying, mental health and behavior issues, those professionals conducted thorough studies that have determined many of those issues are related to the overuse of electronics on young brains.
Researcher Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, in a January 18, 2011, article in the New York Times, revealed that studies showed spending too much time playing video games can increase depression in teens who have a predisposition to social or mental health problems. Meanwhile, the rates of adolescent depression, especially in girls, continue to rise.
Studies also show that the more time children spend on media, the more negative consequences they suffer. A 2010 Kaiser report indicates children spend on average more than 7½ hours a day, or 53 hours a week, on all electronic media, including television.
What’s the solution? There seems to be only one: parental involvement.
Parents need to care enough to set limits and stick with them. Guidelines provided by the American Psychological Association and many pediatricians include: keep TV, computer and other electronic media out of the bedroom, don’t leave TV on during meals or as background sound, have screen-free days and do something fun together, plan what children can watch, talk to children about messages and media content, limit the amount of time kids can use media, and monitor it.
On a personal note, the best thing we ever did when our children were young was to throw out the television after it broke. At first, we thought we’d save to get a new one, but then we realized how much more fun we were having without it. Suddenly, we were playing games together, laughing more and enjoying each other’s company more than ever before. The kids read much more, became more creative, played outside more often and developed an appreciation for silence. I believe those nine years without television were much more beneficial than anything we could have given them.
The internet is amazing and electronics have opened up new worlds for all of us. But for our own good and that of our children, we need to find and maintain a balance between real life and the digital one.