By Meghan Fredette, MD, Pediatric Resident, Boston Combined Residency Program
As I rode the train the other day, a toothy toddler wiggled and giggled in her stroller across from me, making faces at the people around her. The train was otherwise silent except for the steady announcements of stops over the loudspeaker. The train was packed and yet no one looked up from their phones to see the little girl make faces—not even her mother, who sat expressionless, silently swiping at her touchscreen.
This scene is common. It is clear that smartphones and handheld mobile devices have changed how we interact with the world around us. We've all been on a silent train with no interaction between passengers or observed date nights where individuals seem more interested in their phones than in conversation. At some point, we've all probably been guilty of it too, robotically walking through the street face down while checking our emails or texts instead of taking in the world around us.
Face-to-screen time seems to steadily be replacing face-to-face time in our lives.
Authors of a recent article published in the April issue of Pediatrics further documented this trend when they observed caregivers and children dining in fast food establishments. The majority of caregivers used phones during mealtime in the restaurant, and many used the device almost continuously during that time. Children reacted differently to this: Some tried to get their parents’ attention by testing limits, while others played quietly on their own.
Children are like sponges, soaking up what they see and hear around them. In the first year of life alone, a typically developing child will begin speaking, start to stand and take steps, enjoy (and make a mess of) feeding herself, and begin to play social games like patty cake.
Children are born with billions of brain cells that make connections to one another; those connections are called synapses. Through early childhood interactions with the environment, synapses are either strengthened or eliminated. These changes in synapses are permanent, which means that childhood is a key time for brain development.
The child-parent bond is particularly important in this early childhood period; it makes all the difference in a child’s emotional, social and cognitive development. Strong parent-child bonds enhance self-esteem, resulting in children who behave better, perform better in school, and develop more meaningful relationships with their peers. Building this strong bond takes basic nurturing interactions: eye contact, holding, talking.
So what happens when our handheld devices get in the way of those interactions? What will happen to the early development and the future success of children whose parents are paying attention to their phones instead of to them?
The 2013 guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics on screen time for children are based on the child’s own interactions with the screen. The message is clear.
- Discourage screen time for kids under 2 years of age.
- Limit total screen time to less than 1 to 2 hours per day.
- Keep screens out of the bedroom.
These guidelines are a good start, but maybe we need some guidelines for parents too. How can we expect children to limit screen time when their parents and adults around them have no limits on their own screen use? The classic childhood question applies here: How come you can, but I can’t?
You may even get a toothy smile that will totally make your day.
We need more research to understand what happens to the development of children whose parents are frequently absorbed by their handheld devices; the device boom is too recent for us to really know. But we shouldn’t wait for the research to tell us that a child’s development can suffer, when our gut tells us it can.
Let’s place some guidelines on ourselves. Let’s restrict our screen time now, especially around children. Let’s put down our phones and give kids the benefit of face-to-face time.