A dear friend of mine visited a few days ago with her 4 month old baby. As we made our way through my living room, where we keep our 60 in. tv and computers, she brought up the subject of having monitors and screens on with a baby in the room. Apparently, in her house, any sort of screen is forbidden from being on when the baby is present. I assumed she had some fears of physical effects of a baby’s fresh eyes staring at a screen, whether it be brain function, ocular stress or other biological development issues. Then she went on to share her horror at catching the baby sitter watching Kill Bill and I thought ‘does a baby really know the difference between violence, happy times or sad moments on a screen’? This brought up another set of questions for me that called for a search to see what the scientific studies have found before I felt I could make any educated opinions of my own on the issue.
Obviously, the Megans are a technology household. We have a carefully assembled home theater system, multiple computers, smart phones, tablets and game systems. The thought of sharing our favorite movies, cartoons and video games with our son is something we smile about often and look forward to. So, it’s really important to know what sort of effects, negative or positive, technology can play in a child’s life. The most recent studies* have shown that children under 2 years old do not gain any developmental advantage from watching shows, regardless of how educational those programs claim to be. So much for Baby Einstein! Children over the age of two have much more developed language skills and longer attention spans to things on screen, so they do relate very differently to technology. Unfortunately, the same studies also found the most apparent result was a negative one, mostly in the fact that if your child is watching tv or playing on a computer (‘educational’ game or not), that time spent does mean less time you are communicating with and stimulating your child’s creative abilities and encouraging the development of their reasoning and critical thinking skills. In other words, the screen, regardless of what’s on it, is a weak substitute for person to person learning.
Does this mean we can’t enjoy our favorite Pixar movies with our son or have fun introducing him to puzzle games on the Xbox? Hell, no. It means that these activities must be an active, learning experience that we share with him rather than a distraction tool for us to use in order to steal a few minutes of silence. I know, we’re not parents yet, we don’t understand the insanity of keeping a child occupied all day. What seems to be the most beneficial way to steal those moments is letting your child entertain themselves. Give them the opportunity to think of ways to keep busy, be creative, use their imagination. Even a two year old can find something to do with a stick if they’re left alone for a few minutes to try. Hopefully that doesn’t mean sticking it in their eye or eating it! Critical thinking skills develop by allowing a child to think, question, wonder about things, which we all must admit, rarely comes by staring at a screen and watching pictures fly by. If you want to know more about the negative or positive effects of technology on children, I encourage you to read the study for yourself, which I’ve included in the footnote at the bottom of this post.
I think I’ve rambled enough here for this week, but this whole subject leads in to yet another, super important concern I have for my son’s future: when can we watch scary stuff together? Between the graphic comic book art on my walls and the multiple zombie references throughout my house in books, posters, toys, etc, I feel fairly confident that he’ll get a good start at being somewhat comfortable with creepy stuff, but the subject of when and how to introduce those materials to a child is another hotly debated topic that I’ll save for the next episode. Again, I would love to hear ideas and feedback from readers on what I’ve discussed here!