Treat technology as a tool!
Young children glued to their smartphones is a common sight. At home and in public places like restaurants and malls, children are blankly thumbing away at their mobile devices, either playing games or watching YouTube. Adults, of course, play an outsized role in encouraging this behavior.
No family dinner seems complete these days without everyone silently scrolling down their electronic screens instead of engaging in conversation. Even babies are put before iPads playing random videos to keep them from throwing tantrums.
This is the new normal. Is it so bad?
Child experts have long decried this social phenomenon as irreversibly damaging to the mental and physical growth of young children. The World Health Organization (WHO) in early 2019 recommended highly limited screen time for children below the age of five so they don’t grow into sedentary adults susceptible to diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Likewise, an alarming study from earlier this year at the University of Calgary revealed a positive relationship between higher screen times and delayed mental growth in two-year-olds. A strong association between depression and screen time has repeatedly been established by studies as recent as JAMA Pediatrics in mid-July.
Are smartphones really that big a problem? Experts argue that unlimited access to mobile technology is damaging for young children because the one-dimensional nature of absorbing information through the internet stunts their social and emotional development. Children are like sensory vacuum cleaners — beyond viewing and hearing, they must touch, smell and taste the world around them.
And this is plainly impossible when modern parents substitute bonding time with their offspring for smartphones to keep them occupied and quiet. What they do not realize is simply by creating and reinforcing media dependency from an early age, their children as adults will lack the breadth of mental scripts on social and emotional exchanges necessary to fit into the status quo.
Technology undeniable plays a huge role in early childhood education. As proof, average IQ levels across the world have jumped manifold since the early twentieth century.
Children today have an unprecedented amount of information available at their fingertips, and theoretically know far more about many things than those a few generations back. Yet they may be sliding down the scale of traits that are the beating heart of human societies: managing relationships and emotions.
Yet while the academic debate rages on, it is fast turning futile. We must recognize two very important things. First, that technology is here to stay in the lives of our children and no amount of wishful thinking will reverse the march of human progress. Indeed, as we enter the age of robotics, augmented reality and artificial intelligence, this dependency will only grow stronger.
We should hence treat technology for what it is, a tool. And like any tool, its use wholly depends on the intention of the workman. For example, if screen times are rapidly rising among young children, adults are squarely to blame for choosing personal convenience over responsible parenting.
Also, the impact of technology on parenting is nothing new. While the explosion of mobile devices worldwide has created the predicament of how to effectively monitor their usage by young children, a task perhaps not quite as complex in the days of television and radio, yet young children are not rebellious teenagers.
They don’t have allowances saved up to buy smartphones or tablets on the sly. They are not financially independent, and moreover absorb everything they see around them like a sponge. And what they observe and experience today shapes their personalities and preferences as adults.
Hence the question parents should ask themselves is not how to banish technology from the lives of their young children, or indeed radically slash its use. These are bridges to nowhere and will only serve to antagonize them, or greatly lower their self-worth seeing their friends enjoy unreserved access to mobile devices.
That said, the harms from unlimited screen time for young children are very real and must be alleviated, but how?
The solution could lie in adult-child interaction during the process of consuming media content, whether on the internet or television.
Remember that the problem with smartphone dependency among young children is they remain passive consumers of sensory data that is limited to seeing and hearing. For their mental and physical well-being, young children must become active participants during the consumption process and this is where adults come in.
Parents, for instance, should watch their children’s favorite shows with them and ask questions about what is happening on screen to arouse their curiosity and critical thinking. They may even act out some of the action; say dancing, singing or mimicking voices. They could even help build or buy some of the props their children find fascinating, such as musical instruments or toys.
Moreover, it is hard to overstate the benefit of such participation to the parent-child relationship, nor the joy children feel when adults take interest in what interests them.
At a time when the concept of a nuclear family is crumbling the world over and divorce rates are skyrocketing, such small gestures of caring will make best friends of parents and children for life. That can only be a good thing.
Technology offers infinite potential as both a conversation starter and driver of curiosity for children. But it must be moderated by adult-child interaction that enhances the sensory experience to multiple layers of meaning. Only then will high levels of screen time holistically benefit children and prepare them for productive lives as adults.
The writer is an early childhood educator based in Malaysia.