Are Touchscreens Melting Your Kid’s Brain?
Children today are surrounded by screen upon screen upon screen: second screens, third screens, screens on our wrists and even our faces. It’s not uncommon to have one in every room. Screen time—especially if you’re talking about touchscreens—is a perplexing issue all modern parents have to confront.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is unequivocal: If your kid is under 2, no screens. For older kids, two hours a day, max. But the AAP doesn’t differentiate between activities; education apps, base-jumping videos, first-person shooters, ebooks, Sesame Street, and The Shining are all thrown into the same bucket. It’s all just screen time.
Trouble is, they’re not all the same. An app that teaches your kid his ABCs isn’t the same as a television cartoon, but the AAP is probably right to be conservative with its advice. “Researchers know almost nothing about the impact of touchscreen technology on young children,” says Heather Kirkorian, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is trying to find some answers. “Our society is running a large-scale experiment with real children in the real world, and we won’t know the impact, if any, for many years to come.”
Comforting! All the more so because keeping kids away from touchscreens these days is harder than keeping them away from candy. The screens have become one of our cultural platforms—the modern agora where we get our music, movies, books, social interactions, games, and even education.
We’ve made touchscreens joyous. They are so wonderfully intuitive that even the smallest children—and pets!—can navigate them. They transcend language, and who hasn’t seen children fluent in the iOS interface before they can speak? According to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research lab that focuses on children’s education and new media forms, nearly two-thirds of 2- to 10-year-olds in the US have access to a tablet or e-reader.
But the ever-present touchscreens make me incredibly uneasy—probably because they make parenting so easy. There is always one at hand to make restaurants and long drives and air travel much more pleasant. The tablet is the new pacifier.
But these screens have a weird dual nature: They make us more connected and more isolated at the same time. When I hand my daughter an iPad with an interactive reading app, she dives in and reads along. But she also goes into a trance. It’s disturbing because, frankly, it reminds me of myself.
I’m perpetually distracted, staring into my hand, ignoring the people around me. Hit Refresh and get a reward, monkey. Feed the media and it will nourish you with @replies and Likes until you’re hungry and bleary and up way too late alone in bed, locked in the feedback loop. What will my daughter’s loop look like? I’m afraid to find out.
So what’s a parent to do? I could deny my daughter a mainstay of modern life or let her dive into a world of unknown consequences. But there’s a third way for us all. We can use some common sense and deploy the same parenting tool we apply to every other indulgence or stimulus: moderation. And while we’re at it, we should think about applying it to ourselves.