Words Alia A.
Digital Art Alifiya S.
More than a decade of personal experience as a mum and nearly 2 decades of professional experience working as a speech and language therapist, has helped me identify one crucial factor important for the success of any child, regardless of ability, label or diagnosis – that crucial factor is ‘parental involvement’.
My own 3 children aged 5-11 led me into the wonderful world of 24/7 hands-on parenting, while my professional life has allowed me to work with numerous families across many countries and touch their lives as they touched my heart.
Parenting, never straightforward or predictable has become even more of a conundrum in today’s world! “Distracted” – unable to concentrate because one is preoccupied with something (Oxford English Dictionary) which encapsulates our current state perfectly! With many many competing attention grabbers draining us constantly we are increasingly unable to concentrate on any one thing at a given time. This affects every aspect of our lives including our role as a parent. These “Distracted parenting” posts are an effort to examine various facets of parenting in the modern world, it’s implications and how best to navigate around them in order to provide the most wholesome upbringing we can offer our little ones. The posts are intended for parents and young people yet to become parents. They are based on experience from real life situations both in my life at home and in the clinic and will often involve mention of some of the beautiful little people I have worked with while maintaining their anonymity.
A word of warning though, in these posts my aim is not to judge, chastise, blame or preach. I will shamelessly admit though that I’d like my words to make you uncomfortable. Why? Simply because discomfort will make you think and thinking just might make you act.
The first post in this series deals with the ever-present mixed blessing of technology entitled “Plugged-in parents and children”
Picture any restaurant and a young family arriving for a meal. Often, before a little one is released from the pushchair a seemingly equally important family member takes it’s place at the table – the Ipad/tablet/phone – magical babysitter extraordinaire, which will guarantee a peaceful meal for the parents, a full belly for the child and generally a calm evening for everyone concerned. Copy paste this to a different setting such as a playground where a child is trying to grab the attention of a parent who is on the phone with work or answering that all important email or messaging a friend. Or, a grocery store, where a little one sits in the stroller or trolley transfixed by the screen he holds in his hands while mum or dad peacefully complete the weekly shop.
Why do I mention these scenarios? What is so noteworthy about these mundane everyday examples?
Each one of these events is a lost potential bonding opportunity, a chance to truly share a moment with your child to teach and to explore the world together. Yet in our need for tranquillity or speed, most of us default to the ever-present digital childminder without realizing the harm that we’re unknowingly exposing our little one to. Most of us are oblivious to the sheer overexposure to screen time children currently get.
Official guidelines and recommendations vary geographically. For instance, in Canada, screen time is not recommended for children under 2 while 2-5-year-olds are recommended to have less than an hour in a manner such that caregivers are actively involved in the screen time activity rather than leaving the child to watch programs or play games on his/her own and thereby essentially be allowed to tune out of life around him/her. Device-free during mealtimes is another recommendation. In the USA however, recommendations are a bit more relaxed such that recently children under 2 are allowed screen-time for video chatting (e.g. Skype or Facetime) while 2-5 yr olds should have screen time limited to an hour a day. They also advocate no screen time an hour before bed. There are also recommendations regarding the quality of the screen time, details can be found here: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx
So what about on-screen learning, I hear you ask? Well, the verdict according to researchers is that pre-schoolers benefit from screens in terms of learning only if the material is educational, of high quality and is not over-used. Babies are not developmentally ready to learn much from screens as they cannot adopt what they see on screen in real life. The universal truth is: children learn best from people. An engaged nurturing caregiver is far superior to even the most superior quality educational material available digitally.
Speaking of the use of digital educational material, the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends using the 4M’s: Minimize screen time, Mitigate the risks associated with screen time by being present and engaged when screens are used, being Mindful about screen time habits and Model healthy screen time.
This is great advice. Interestingly it reminds me of a child I started working with about a year ago. Let’s call him Barry*. Barry was brought to the clinic because parents were concerned about his lack of speech, his microscopic attention span, sleep disturbances and frequent tantrums. During the course of the interview, it became apparent that from the age of 4 months old Barry had been watching “educational” DVDs for an average of 6 hours a day, every day! Before we jump to judging and blaming the parents, consider this, the parents in all earnestness believed they were doing the right thing by facilitating their child’s education digitally rather than “wasting” time playing. Suffice it to say, despite my years of experience even I was stunned into silence for a few seconds. It is sobering to realise that while unfortunately, Barry’s story is extreme, it isn’t unusual. Even in my own practice I have come across several pre-schoolers heavily “addicted” to screen time so much so that it hinders the normal course of their development. Numerous children spend a significant amount of time every day plugged into some device or the other for a variety of reasons, entertainment, education, babysitting etc. According to a study reported by CNN, in April 2017, involving 900, 18month olds, researchers found that every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk of speech delay.
Speech and language, unfortunately, are not the only aspects of a child’s development affected by excessive exposure to technology. Some of the other negative effects include: problems with physical development as a result of inactivity and lack of opportunities to explore the physical world, delayed development of play skills which are vital for learning and making connections, difficulties maintaining attention given how the children become used to rapidly changing images, overstimulation, behavioural challenges, bonding issues, social difficulties and the list continues into cyberbullying etc as our children grow older.
Research into the effect of overexposure to screens is in its infancy and there is a dearth of studies following children over an extended period of time so as to provide concrete evidence one way or the other but the writing is pretty much on the wall, we need to be vigilant about how our children access and use technology. Monitoring duration, content and safe ways to use digital media is a whole discussion in itself.
At this point, it is important to note that we parents are role models for our children with regards to every aspect of their development and learning. Children learn through imitation. Whether it’s how we speak or how we carry on the activities of our daily life. Therefore, it follows naturally that as they copy our behaviour, we need to take a good look at ourselves and our screen times. A parent I know once referred to social media as ‘digital cocaine’ highly addictive yet not beneficial. This is true for our little ones and screen time. There is no evidence that tiny babies benefit from digital learning!
Don’t get me wrong, technology can have a positive place in the education of our children but in a measured strictly controlled manner. We just need to learn to use it responsibly for our children and be stellar role models. It’s no good a father yelling at his son to get off his device while he himself “just quickly” answers a Whatsapp message while mid-conversation with his son. Or the mum who bleary-eyed first thing in the morning reaches out for her phone to check her messages before even having got out of bed.
Having, spelt out the dangers of overexposure to screens, it is only fair that I weave in a bit of positivity at this juncture. The truth is regardless of however much your child has been exposed to the “digital cocaine” great things can happen the moment you take charge and nip it in the bud. Our friend Barry experienced a dramatic cold-turkey withdrawal from all things tech and today, after a year of sticking to this and therapeutic intervention is busily catching up with similarly aged children in terms of his communication skills. His behaviour is more controlled, he sleeps well and is better able to relate to others. He still has some way to go but his transformation has been nothing short of spectacular.
So, what is the answer? How do we entertain, educate, play, babysit our children without relying heavily on technology and while still maintaining our sanity? For that, read the next instalment of Distracted Parenting… ‘Unplugged Parents and Children’