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Plug and Play: Finding a balance between screen time and life

While technology  and toddlers can safely mix, parental supervision is a must, according to local experts. [Pixabay.com photo]

Less than 50 years ago, the first mobile phone to hit the market, sold by Motorola, was almost 10 inches long and weighed two pounds. The battery could only last 20 minutes before dying. 

Nowadays, smartphones are small enough to fit in cup holders, pockets and, at an increasing rate, the hands of kids, even toddlers.

In a world where many adults consider smartphones a necessity, more children also are using mobile devices and apps for both educational and entertainment purposes. Today’s youth are experiencing activities like texting, online gaming and other cellphone amenities at the youngest age range in history. 

According to Nielsen’s most recent fourth-quarter Mobile Kids Report, 45% of mobile kids got a service plan at 10 to 12 years old. The average age of a child with a service plan was 10 [22%], followed by 8 years old [16%] and ages 9 and 11 tied with 15%.

According to Dr. Kora Felsch, a pediatrician with St. Louis Pediatric Associates, Inc., the cresting trend of “techno babies” has caused a wave of new research and new questions in doctors’ offices.

“We get a fair amount of parents who want to know if there are certain things they can do to help, or if there’s anything it [technology] can do to increase their kids’ language development, or help give them a step up in their early years,” Felsch said.

The use of technology as a means of babysitting children also has garnered concerns, especially from entities like Parents as Teachers. Locally headquartered Maryland Heights, Parents as Teachers uses home visits to aid in early childhood development and assist children and families.

“Parents of young children are often avid users of digital technology – sometimes to the point where they are not engaged with or responsive to their child,” Angela Rau, virtual parent education specialist at Parents as Teachers National Center, said in an email interview with West Newsmagazine

But how do you escape something that’s literally all around you?

Hardwired at home 

Many modern classrooms are equipped with computers; even restaurant tables are equipped with tablets that allow kids to play app games while waiting for food. But when abused, smart technology and media consumption can displace activities like quality time with family and friends, exercise, unplugged downtime and even sleep.

Felsch said sleep may be the biggest, or at least most obvious, disruption in a child’s life. “The blue light that’s emitted from screens interferes with melatonin, which is a hormone that helps people sleep,” she explained.

She said another injury that can come from too much phone or tablet usage at a young age is overuse of the elbow muscles from frequent extension.

“People get elbow strain and pain from always having their phone held at a certain distance for texting or other things. It’s an overuse injury,” she said. But the answer is easy. “So, switch hands, or preferably, put it down.”

Surprisingly, when it comes to inactivity and obesity, mobile phone usage and technology was not the number one culprit. Instead, Felsch said television still trumps smart technology usage as a pastime that leads to more childhood obesity and inactivity. 

The difference between the two? Engagement and advertising.

“There have been many studies that show that watching TV in particular increases obesity rates in a small but significant way, and that it potentially sets people up to have a particular mindset that can continue as they age,” Felsch said. “These studies were done before services like Netflix where there aren’t commercials, but they think it’s two things. The first thing was watching while eating, which decreases the cue that you’re full and don’t need to eat anymore. The other thing is food advertising. Most of the things advertised on kids shows are foods that have low nutritional value but high-calorie intake … That’s what they theorize is causing that rise in obesity, because they don’t see the same thing if kids are playing the same amount of video game time or anything else like that.”

According to Rau, overusing technology doesn’t just have potential physical repercussions, it can also be “dangerous to children’s developmental progress and brain development.” 

“Unfortunately, hours spent in front of screens often means hours lost to proper development,” Rau said. “Even before researchers started investigating the effects of TV and technology on young children, we had decades of research telling us how much young children need responsive interactions and opportunities for self-directed play. These are some of the things that TV and technology tend to take away from children. 

“Overuse of technology is also threatening to children’s physical health and safety. Watching too much TV as a toddler leads to a number of issues later in childhood. On average, children who watch less TV do better in math, have fewer peer problems are more physically active and have lower rates of obesity.”

Another difference in screen time is that mobile technology can be addicting while also lacking a natural stop time.

“Especially for gaming or other apps like that, they’re made without a suggested stop time that you might see with something like regular TV,” Felsch said. “That’s why we have a lot of people say that kids as young as 18 months up to teenagers will throw tantrums when parents tell them to turn off the phone or to put the screen away. Part of that is the way these things are designed, and it’s designed that way for adults as well.”

Due to chemical reactions in the human brain, that addicting design doesn’t have an age limit.

“There’s a little bit of dopamine that is released every time you open your phone, and that is a chemical that’s also released [when] gambling,” Felsch said. “When you look at your phone, you don’t know. Is there going to be a new text from my friend? Is there going to be an interesting article that pops up? It’s like pulling a lever on a slot machine. You’re waiting for that next, random burst of affirmation that you’re doing something fun.”

Plugged in at school

While placing a smartphone or tablet in a child’s hands may cause anxiety for some parents, many modern classrooms have already transitioned into centers for online learning. 

Rau acknowledged that digital literacy is cited as an important skill for children to develop and can help provide visual-spatial skills, problem-solving experience, practice in following directions and overall comfort with electronic technology.

“Electronics can help them learn how to tell reality from fantasy, solve problems and think logically,” Rau said.

Updated classrooms often allow students to work more independently and apply real-world work and research skills to classroom projects. Applications, games, word processors and other educational programs can supplement coursework. Games also can help develop a child’s early motor skills and strengthen response time. For parents of younger kids, Felsch recommends programs and apps available through entities like PBS or the Sesame Workshop, the creator of “Sesame Street.”

“They both put out a lot of good things that have been vetted and created by people who are educators with a specific curriculum in mind,” Felsch said. “Those are among the few that have been shown to actually increase learning and understanding. With younger children, it isn’t just for things like literacy, but also for skills like emotion regulation and perseverance, which is just as important, if not more so, for young kids going into school.”

According to Felsch, many kids will use technology to supplement hobbies or interests learned in school naturally. One of the most popular ways technology is utilized by kids is through the consumption of free videos and tutorials on sites like YouTube or streaming services like Twitch.

“A lot of children use the internet to augment what they’re already doing,” Felsch said. “So, if they’re really into dance or gymnastics or music, they then can go on YouTube or other places and look at what other people or doing and incorporate that into their own play. I think that’s really neat … 

“All technology is not bad. It’s just finding a way to try and achieve moderation, and to make sure you’re making space in your life for other things.”

Toddlers with tablets

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP], media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age but is more effective if paired with engagement from a parent or guardian figure.

Experts say media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age. [Adobestock photo]

However, for children younger than 18 months, Felsch said that “there’s really no benefit at all to technology in general.” That sentiment extends beyond technology to also include some toys available on the market.

“Even for toys that talk or speak, what they’ve found is when a parent plays with a child under 18 months old with a toy that talks, or with apps that make noise, the parents talk less and the child makes less vocalization,” Felsch said.

The same concept rings true for children ages 2-5, for whom the AAP recommends about an hour of supervised technology usage per day.

“What’s most important is to have parents watching with their children, instead of just using it as a babysitter,” Felsch said. “That’s because then parents can actually help them understand the messages from that programming into what kids are doing and make those connections more clearly.”

According to Rau, supervision by parents or teachers can help technology remain a tool instead of a distraction. One of the most positive methods cited by Rau was using smartphones or mobile technology to Skype or FaceTime with distant relatives, family or friends. Felsch agreed.

“That is useful, and it’s because there’s an interactive person on the other end of it,” Felsch said. 

Additionally, Felsch said there’s no reason for parents to fear that their kids are falling behind if they aren’t plugged in at home.

“The other thing parents sometimes worry about is, ‘If I don’t expose my children to technology, will they be behind when they get into the classroom?’” Felsch said. “Honestly, everything is so intuitive now that it’s really not a concern for anyone.”

She advises that parents and kids do not need to embrace technology just because everyone else is. 

While research for the ongoing effects of technology on brain development is still young, Felsch emphasized that balance is the key when deciding whether to hand a tablet or iPad to a young child.

To help find balance betwen family time and screen time, Felsch said a helpful tool can be the implementation of a family media plan, not just for children and teens, but adults and parents as well. Families can even create custom media plans on AAP’s official site, healthychildren.org.

“It’s the same thing as everything else,” Felsch said. “If the parents aren’t eating vegetables, then the kids are less likely to. If parents are using their phones all the time, then it’s more likely the kids will want to do the same.”

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