Is Technology Destroying Family Life?
Two articles caught my eye in the local paper. One focused on the proliferation of DVD players being purchased for cars. It appears that parents are discovering that traveling with children is much more pleasant when they are preoccupied with a video. Of course, there were all the expected outcries from child development experts about how this is one more step in the direction of isolating parents from their children, centering on the premise that a long auto trip is a great time for family togetherness. It left me wondering if any of these experts had taken a long auto trip with their children!
There were also concerns about being able to see sexual content in a nearby car as well as the usual complaints that watching videos, like watching TV, is a passive process that fails to engage the child’s mind and encourages a type of “slothness” that will inhibit the child’s interest in actively learning about the surrounding world.
The other article described a new trend in home design that moves away from the open living areas into smaller, separated spaces designed to give family members individualized rooms for down time or work time. This, too, was seen as another sign of diminished family relationships that are an essential cornerstone in developing the social and communication skills our children will need to have successful lives. A key factor encouraging these separate spaces is having multiple computers and TV’s that allow each family member to be working on or pursuing their individual needs and interests, rather than sharing common experiences.
These articles appeared only a few months after a report was published that stirred a moment of angst for many. A study had found that two-third’s of U.S. children under the age of six, including children as young as six months, were spending an average of two hours a day in front of a TV, computer, or video screen. Perhaps the most controversial finding was that one-third of these children (or about one of every five preschoolers) had a TV in their bedroom. The expressed concerns by child development experts included the loss of ability to creatively entertain oneself, a shortened attention span, and the increased exposure to violence which is such a dominant component of all TV and video programming.
In addition, there are constant media stories about the inherent dangers of the Internet and as well as all the above issues that come from children spending too much time in front of a computer screen.
Are we raising a generation of passive children whose unused brain cells are dying by the millions?
Clearly anything that is excessive has the potential to be harmful. Even too much social interaction can be overwhelming and counterproductive. Some of these concerns, however, are focused on the wrong issues. There is yet to be any data that shows a couple of hours a day of “screen time“ is harmful unless that screen is filled with excessive violence. That is the one issue that does have a lot of research validation. Constant exposure to violent images may increase propensity for violence or generate numbness to its terrible consequences. Beyond that there is still significant debate about the role of what has become characterized as using TV or other video monitors as babysitting or childcare devices.
Just like the day care debate that finds positive results (increased social skills) and negative results (increased social aggressiveness), I strongly believe that screen time is not as passive as many believe and that it also exposes children to a lot of useful information (if parents make some wise choices about the videos or programs being watched). Very young children interact with the screen. They see the characters as real and they talk to them and can learn from them. Video games have become so valuable a tool in enhancing eye-hand coordination that it is now used in military training. (Okay, that may not please some of you, but it does support the idea that it is not useless time!)
Since most young children participate in some type of group childcare they are experiencing more social and motor development activities than they would if they were with their mother all day. Most children now attend preschools and increasingly, kindergarten is the norm (if only it were universal and all day). We have a distorted image of what never was: Young children playing together or with a parent for hours a day. You don’t have to go back very far in our society’s history to see where families were large, parents were working long hours in and out of the home, and a lot of child care being done by older siblings. Are we still envisioning some 1950’s fantasy of the at-home mother who had lots of time to spend attending to the needs of her children?
Except for the communities where poverty dominates (and this, along with the lack of healthcare coverage, are very important issues which deserve far more attention than too much screen time), young children appear to be very bright and very social. It is increasingly clear that the desire for social attachment is a strong human drive and will continue to express itself even if there’s a lot of screen time in a child’s life. Meanwhile, teens appear to be making better choices about sex and drugs and are more involved in social issues than ever. I don’t accept the assumption that the role of screen time in family life is causing loss of social and intellectual skills in the typical middle class family.
So what really matters?
First let’s go back to the original concern about DVD’s in cars. It relates to a myth about quality family time. Most family time is not quality time. Trying to get a group of very varied ages and needs on the same page is exceptionally challenging and usually results in a lot of yelling and frustration. Being able to individualize activities that meet the specific needs of each family member, especially on long car trips that are nearly always quite boring for everyone, is a wonderful option. This should not be misinterpreted to mean that there is no value in family activities. From young children climbing into the parents’ bed on a Sunday morning or enjoying a swim or a board game that all can play, these are wonderful times to be shared and remembered. Similarly, special rituals around holidays or weekly events (one special dinner night) are very meaningful and also remembered fondly.
A TV in a young child’s bedroom admittedly bothers me but in reality it is not the presence of the TV but whether the parent manages its use that really matters. Even more important is whether screen time totally replaces quality human time or still allows for meaningful parent-child or child-child interaction. We probably set our expectations too high about what children need to stimulate healthy development. There is the concept of “good enough “ parenting that needs to replace the concept of “perfect parenting”, because the latter not only doesn’t exist but if parents are chasing it as their goal, then all will suffer from too much stress, too little satisfaction, and too many scheduled activities.
There is an implicit assumption being made in this debate that the child would be engaged in quality social interaction or meaningful self-initiated activities during the time being spent in front of a screen. I would like to challenge that assumption. Today’s families are the most diverse group that has ever existed in our society. They are characterized by parents who are playing multiple roles and are chronically drained. Most can no longer provide hours of quality parenting and have turned to many substitutes as partners in raising children. Some are human – daycare, nannies, babysitters, and structured activities. Others are technological – the TV, computer, and video game time that holds the attention of children.
Without these supports, I often see tired, angry parents spending too much of their time with children in ways that are not healthy. That time is filled with criticism, annoyance, and impatience – the lost ability to actually enjoy one’s children. It becomes more a set of unpleasant obligations, one that often is further harmed by the presence of parental conflict which in turn is fueled by marital conflict from the lack of quality couple’s time. A vicious cycle of overwhelmed people who have lost sight of what really matters in life compounded by a world filled with uncertainties ranging from financial problems to terrorism.
Instead I encourage parents to make smart choices about using these caretaking
supports and focus limited but effective energy in periods of uninterrupted
one-on-one time with each child (and with each other). That includes listening
to your teen’s music and showing interest in it, watching in awe as your
child breaks new records in his latest video game, or sitting with your child
and watching her favorite TV show. Screen time can keep your children occupied
in ways that are not harmful. It can also be another avenue, a contemporary
one, for shared experience. And that is what really matters.
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