|Judith Ashton In-house psychotherapist Buddy Bench|
Last month I was sitting in Rodez airport departure lounge reading a magazine when I looked up and became aware of the relative silence around the place and the absorption of nearly all of my fellow travellers, young and old in their screens. I was struck by the lack of communication between the adults and children when I noticed one young father, only one, with a toddler on his lap reading a picture book. I felt as if I was witnessing a lost image of childhood right there before my eyes and was deeply saddened….. I was looking it seemed at a species on the edge of distinction and was scared by the Frankenstein images that started to percolate through my mind of the future generations of what are being called “cyberbabes”.
A lot is now being written about the real dangers of screen time on the normal developmental markers of humans. Babies brains grow and develop in response to certain stimuli from the start and the most important of these are touch, sounds and eye contact. If these aspects are lacking a baby will soon lose contact with reality and become withdrawn and resigned. Many young parents are more fixated on their mobiles than on their offspring and look much more at the screen than on baby. This is a recent development and is sure to have long term behavioural consequences. I heard someone say recently that mobile phones should carry the warning, “ WARNING : NOT LOOKING AT YOUR BABY COULD CAUSE SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENTAL DELAYS.”
I remember arguing with my children’s father about not giving our lads mobile phone too early as I had heard about the damaging health effects. His argument was, “Well everybody else has them so what’s the problem?” That was exactly the problem. Social peer pressure as opposed to scientific research which few people read till it’s too late. So many of the “latest” things have not had the luxury of time to measure their effects on human beings…. Our headlong rush into and adulation of modern technology has blinded us to the dangers until the damage is done. The list is long but here are a few: cigarettes, alcohol, the pill, HRT, statins, many medications to name but a few. I believe in years to come there will be a big re-think on screens. Wait and see…. There seems to be a current trend amongst young people to “get healthy” with exercise/diet/ yoga etc but an abject non-awareness of the health risks of screen use.
Dr. Mary Aiken is an Irish Cyberpsychologist and expert researcher in this field and she has just published a new book, “The Cyber Effect”. It is sobering to say the least and we need to wake up now to the ill effects on screens on our children if we are to be really responsible parents. There are many teens now being diagnosed with screen addictions and concentration issues caused by screens and also screen deficit disorder when the screen is removed. How can this have happened in one generation? As parents we need to keep our eyes on the ball at ALL times to allow our children to develop as normally as possible in our ever increasingly challenged society. You would not allow your baby or toddler to be exiled and isolated in a wilderness would you ?
Of course not…. But allowing them constant exposure to screens is comparable in my opinion. Children need to be in the real world, doing real things for development. They need company, relationships, voice stimulation, healthy touch and exercise. Kids need to be using creativity and imagination and the toys of yesteryear, dolls/teddy-bears/puzzles/colouring books/lego etc all stimulated creativity and the imagination. We as parents need to make time to engage with these pursuits with our kids…. To walk, feed ducks, go cycling etc. I believe such activities are essential not options for every-ones health and well- being and create a good basis for future relationships. No kid ever wants an absent parent and yet that is what many have when they have a screen in their tiny hands.
A sad fact is that many children are so lacking certain motor skills that when they go to school teachers are having to deal with children who cannot co-ordinate and stack building blocks or hold a pencil and that some 5 and 6 year old children are starting school with the communication skills of 2 and 3 year olds because they have been distracted by screens rather than spoken to by caregivers. This observation has been recorded in children from all backgrounds.
To quote Dr. Mary Aiken, “ A 2015 consumer report shows that most American children get their first mobile phone when they are 6 yearsold. This shocks me. This is before what in psychology we call the age of reason when a child enters a new state of logic and begins to understand te surrounding world…. Learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad,justice and injustice.With a phone in hand these children are being catapulted into cyberspace before theyare psychologically capable of making sense of it. WE can’t even make sense of it.”
Dr. Mary Aiken also notes that over a quarter of 8 to 12 year olds use Facebook despite the fact that to activate an account you must be aged 13 or older. This whole area of social networks is extremely difficult for most parents to control and it is a fact that many of the thought leaders in this area from Silicone Valley including the late Steve Jobs of Apple restrict the screen usage of their kids, preferring them to play outdoors, wander in Nature and play with imaginative toys. These parents it seems prioritise time with their children rather than exiling them with screens. Maybe they know the dangers of their own creations more than we do for the moment.
I do not intend to disregard the many positive educational aspects of screens and readily acknowledge the riches they have brought to all of our lives but we need to remember that we must be vigilant with the future development of our children who before long will be the adults in society. I believe that we need to care and raise our kids in the best way possible and that means limiting screen time, and not to create as Mary Aiken calls them “cyber-feral” children.
To end this article, if the lone dad I saw in Rodez airport is reading this…. “Good on you! Keep up the good work and it will pay off in the end as you are putting in the time and effort and investing in a good, healthy and sane relationship with your toddler…. Well done you!”
Please read , “The Cyber Effect “ by Dr. Mary Aiken published by John Murray. €19.99.