Thursday, October 31, 2013

Step away from the screen and nobody gets hurt!

I have been eagerly following NPR's fascinating series of stories on how the technology that permeates our lives effects individuals' intellectual and social development. The story of young men at a rehab center outside Seattle trying to kick their internet addictions was particularly chilling. This week's story referenced recent American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations of limiting passive screen time for infants and children under two.

When I heard this I wondered if I wasn't experiencing déja vu. My kids were little decades ago, and I recall hearing similar warnings then. We didn't have tablets or iPhones, and YouTube's founders were still in high school. So it was mostly TV we were being warned against. And we listened. My husband and I were counter-cultural in our decision to strictly limit TV viewing (and of course there were exceptions to our rules-- the World Series and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, to name two) but we stuck with it.

On Fridays and Saturdays we watched old movies from the library. "The African Queen," "The Thin Man" series, and Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were favorites. These movies were fun, and presented a historical reference point to my 21st-century children. They saw how a 1940's wall phone worked ("Operator! Operator! Get me the police!"), and how people dressed in a less casual world (hat and gloves, anyone?). But also they had to listen closely to that snappy dialogue and wait for the action to unfold. Movies were much more aural back then, far less visual. My kids are both verbally expressive. Is there a link? Maybe. We did have fun, and I got to share with them my love of classic movies.

Today, screens are everywhere. At all times. They have become the great pacifiers for kids of all ages. Pediatricians worry that too much passive screen time will inhibit language development, thus impairing social interaction. In the NPR story, Dr. Ari Brown, lead author on the AAP policy statement, said "The concern for risk is that some kids who watch a lot of media actually have poor language skills, so there's a deficit in their language development. We also have concerns about other developmental issues because they're basically missing out on other developmentally appropriate activities."

I worry about that, too. As a communications coach who deals with leadership training, I know that the ability to communicate effectively is key to professional and personal success. Not just saying what you think and what you want to happen, but listening to others, empathizing, being able to make that imaginative leap to understand what someone else might be thinking. All these things may be effected by too much spoon-fed screen action at a young age. We don't know yet, but isn't it better to err on the side of caution? What happens in early brain development is so very important, why take that chance?

I am not a scientist, nor a health professional (though I have played one on TV!) but my experience in the communications field tells me these docs are right. For our kids' sake--and maybe for our own future brain health-- we must all be cut down on our passive screen consumption. So next time you feel like "vegging" home alone in front of the screen, get out of that chair and go take a walk. Or just DO something!

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