Technology is not a good babysitter

Expert says children need stimulating activities and interaction with others to reduce anxiety and develop social skills. | Getty image

Expert says children need stimulating activities and interaction with others to reduce anxiety and develop social skills

PENTICTON, B.C. — Developmental and language delays, increased depression, distracted behaviour and less empathy in children are red flags for parents who need to better manage technology use in their homes.

Elad Milman presented a session on keeping human connections in the technological age at a recent parenting conference in Penticton.

“I think the concern is big enough for us to be more careful and to give better alternatives,” said Milman, who with his wife, Gloria Bucil, create children’s books at the True North Publishing Society and promote youth programming through the Children for a Better Future Learning Society.

Milman cautioned parents against using technology as a babysitter while they attend to other matters in the house.

“Be selective in how you use it, don’t use it as a default,” he said, citing Canadian Pediatric Society guidelines that recommend no exposure to devices before the age of two.

It also suggests limiting screen time to less than one hour a day for two to five year olds and curtailing its use at least one hour before bed.

Milman said parents should speak to children as often as possible and find stimulating activities to counter the effects of technology.

Their language and intelligence are developed by the amount of words spoken to them, he said, citing studies that show vocabulary drops by as much as 50 percent when TV and electronic devices are constantly on in the house.

Depression and anxiety rates are up in pre-teens and teens as well as documented self-harm rates in teenaged girls, said Milman, who felt less interaction with others could be to blame.

He cited a University of Michigan study that correlated a drop in empathy in children with the appearance of more screens and devices from 2000-09.

“Children are developing in a world where they see less of each other,” said Milman.

That leads to impaired development in reading others’ body language and facial expressions and learning negotiating skills.

“Developing empathy is key to success in life,” said Milman.

He cited a study that found the insula part of the brain responsible for empathy was smaller among those who spend a lot of time with screens.

Other impairments have also been noted, including how most children could tie their shoes by age five 15 years ago, but now it’s closer to eight.

Milman said that may be linked to children having less hands-on involvement and interaction in the real world and more time with devices.

“That does not give them as much development as from the real world,” he said.

The very young don’t have a full understanding of what they are viewing on screens, he said, stressing the importance of hands-on activities such as playing with blocks to stimulate development.

He said babies learn to imitate behaviours and will mimic the level of distraction seen in a parent on cellphones and laptops, which could lead to symptoms of attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity in later life.

  • Keep all media devices in a central location in the home to control access and oversee content.
  • Model behaviours such as coming to the dinner table without the smartphone.
  • Create opportunities for family play with board games or outdoor activities.
  • Use technology to control its use through apps that can limit the number of hours children are on devices or sites.
  • Discuss the reasons for limiting technology with children so together a family learns to manage its use.

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