Like everyone else, I like making resolutions from time to time. While some goals have been easier to attain than others, one resolution that has been frustratingly difficult to achieve has been "digital disconnection." Especially in today's hyper-connected world, it is almost impossible to "unplug." While it may be desirable, and even necessary to be proficient at computers and technology, it is equally important that we also learn to be healthy "netizens," and serve as smart examples for our kids. Children, even infants, are being exposed to a barrage of electronic devices. If smart phones, tablets, computers, televisions and video games weren't enough, we now have toy versions of the same! In fact, the iPad has even become the go-to baby sitter for a lot of families. The negative effects of such unrestricted and early exposure are very wide ranging, and only of late has science been able to shed light on some of these.We know that most of a child’s brain growth occurs in the first 2-3 years of life. Children spending unrestricted time with gadgets have difficulty differentiating the real from fantasy.
Instead of interacting with family, being imaginative and learning from free-range play, these children tend to learn from their "screen teachers” and tune out the real world. Some of these children may also become immune to the violence so common in today’s media, and then develop behavioral difficulties themselves. We have already heard of rehabilitation centers in China for youth addicted to gadgets. (And need I even remind parents about predators and other dangers lurking in cyber space?)
Screen time also impacts older children. Texting late into the night (or using other digital gadgets) disturbs the quality and quantity of sleep time, making children less prepared for the next day's school work. They spend less time at play and tend to be more sedentary. Add to this, the commercials for unhealthy snacks advertised on media, and wow, we have an unmatched recipe for obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Now we also have a whole range of physical afflictions associated with excessive screen and gadget use. At some point, most of us have experienced pain in our fingers, wrists, back or neck from repetitive texting and typing. Science has only begun to discover the physical impacts of our gadget habits, and the list is bound to grow in the years to come.
What can we do to mitigate this epidemic? There is no one-size guidance for all, but here are some suggestions. Like anything else in life, common sense should be our guiding light.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time for children under 2 years. This means not even the iPhone or iPad as an "electronic pacifier!" Children over 2 years are allowed up to 2 hours of high quality media time per day.
- Say good night to the smart phones and tablets at bed time. Make sure the night stand is not their resting place when we go to bed. Checking the phone for emails and updates through the night, and first thing in the morning, stresses us out. No email or social media post is more important than our sleep.
- Bed time stories are best done with actual books- not tablets or e-readers. The bright glow from these devices contributes to eye strain and interferes with our sleep rhythm.
- Avoid multitasking. Focus on experiencing the moment. Eat while at the dinner table- make conversations and build relationships. Likewise, while watching TV, do not clutter the experience with texting, tweeting and "Facebooking".
Ironically, I end this now by noting how I am typing away on my iPad, after having extensively browsed the internet on my laptop, and that this blog is going to be published on social media for your reading pleasure. It’s a sign of the times…but I’ll see you at the park!