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Screen Queens


Life as a parent can be challenging – early mornings, convincing your child to eat, and having time for yourself. Sometimes you need five minutes to think.  So what do you do – thrust your mobile device in front of your three-year-old?  Today we explore some of the good, bad and ugly concerns around electronic media.

Bottom line

We need to consider not whether this technology should be used, but how it should be used

A screen-free diet, with actual face-to-face interaction, may improve recognition of nonverbal social cues

Consider asking a media history as part of your social history or HEADSS screen

US data shows that children (between the age of 8 and 18), on average, spend 7 hours and 38 minutes interacting with electronic media (so phones, televisions, tablets, and games consoles) every single day!  This equates to 53 hours a week. With most of them being able to multitask (watching a film while texting and playing Minecraft), they may consume even more. These devices are often used as an electronic “babysitter” keeping children quiet on long car journeys as their parents try and halt the constant cries of “Are we there yet?”. A whopping 63% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2014 Australian Media Consumer Survey owned an electronic tablet, with 81% owning a smartphone. Over half (53%) of these respondents were ‘digital omnivores’ consuming more than one type of electronic media simultaneously. Compare this figure with similar data from the US (37%) and Japan (17%). Children of lower socioeconomic parents spend more time in front of a digital babysitter.–Q

As younger and younger children are exposed, one wonders what effect this will have on how they interact with the world. We’ve seen examples of children trying to swipe images on flat-screen televisions or move fish around a fish tank by pressing at the glass, thinking they are icons in a game. But are all devices evil?

The Good

Children learn by copying –  watching their parents and siblings. Perhaps electronic tablets might be helpful for children with difficulty in social interactions. Several small studies have used iPad-based video tools to help autistic children acquire several social skills through imitation. These apps are known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps. As well as improving non-verbal communication apps have been developed to improve attention span, time management and dealing with negative feelings.

Educational literature reports that teachers like using tablets because they help foster independent learning, though the cynical observer may argue that they require less of the teacher than formal pedagogy. Short-term benefits aside, there has been no research into the potential middle to long-term effects. It has also been extensively used in regular classrooms to increase collaboration and engagement between children but at the risk of being a distracting presence.

In the hospital environment, actively interacting with an iPad, rather than just passively viewing an episode of Peppa Pig, has been shown to reduce both the anxiety and pain of injections, as mentioned in this podcast, as well as being used to create an immersive, distracting environment for the induction of paediatric anaesthesia.

The Bad

Interestingly the detractors of early iPad use point out that some social skills may be lessened by early usage. Normal gaze following develops between six and nine months of age. As babies observe an adult turning their head (with open eyes), they also turn to look to see what the adult is looking at. If they observe an adult on-screen turn to look off-screen, they do not seem to understand. Does this delay development? The ‘Cues-Filtered-Out‘ theory postulates that some of the lack of non-verbal cues in these computerised interactions may lead to problems with interpersonal communication in later life. There is not enough data to draw any conclusions, but it is an exciting area of research.

We’ve all heard of typical teenage behaviour, grunting responses to repeated questions, unable to draw their eyes away from their mobile phones. An enterprising US researcher took a group of teenagers away on a five-day, screen-free summer camp and found that, compared to pre-camp testing, they had a much greater ability to respond to non-verbal cues. We know that if parents use their phones whilst they could be interacting with their children, the children show increasingly escalating behaviour and tantrum-throwing in order to get attention. Perhaps all of us would benefit from a digital diet?

Does the ability to swipe the screen render children less able to manipulate physical objects? Distracting electronic play may reduce early, curious interaction with the physical environment and social-emotional development.

The Ugly

Whilst poorly communicating teenagers may seem to be the norm, one must also consider the darker aspect of exposure to screen time – that of the ever-rising incidence of internet addiction. Whilst internet addiction is not a formally recognised disorder as per DSM-5, problematic internet usage (PIU) is certainly discussed in the literature. Griffith’s model of internet addiction suggests the following diagnostic criteria:

  • Salience – the internet is the most important thing in the persons life and dominates their thinking
  • Mood modification – the presence of a positive “buzz” of being on-line or its use as tranquiliser from the pressures of everyday life
  • Tolerance
  • The presence of withdrawal symptoms
  • Conflict arises from a person’s excessive use
  • The tendency to relapse

Increased (beyond the norm) internet use has been associated (but not causally related) with an increased incidence of ADHD as well as increased symptoms of depression in teenagers. In much younger children, the iPad can become a fixation device, like a favourite toy, that is hard to drag the child away from without starting them screaming and wailing.

The risks of online social media engagement are beyond the scope of this post.

Electronic entertainment, whether on television or handheld device, is here to stay. Like most technology, it can be used for good or ill, so we all need to consider its impact. The AAP recommends taking a media history as part of the social history of every child, asking two critical questions:

How much recreational screen time does your child or teenage consume daily?

Is there a television or internet-connected device in the child’s bedroom?

They recommend that such devices should not be used by children under two years of age.In fact the French government have banned children’s television programmes for under two year old. Whilst media professionals may argue that this ‘foreground’ media is designed to be watched by parent and child together in order to facilitate interaction it is often used to make daily living easier.  Parents must also be wary of the ‘background’ media – programming that is intended for adults – that is on in the house. Whilst it is often in the background for the children it is in the foreground for the adults, reducing parent-child interaction.

Take some time to reflect on your own reliance of electronic media.

(Editors note – whilst I have referred to iPads throughout this post, you could just as easily substitute any other electronic tablet or device)


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