A couple of weeks ago was school vacation week for both kids, which meant that the four of were reunited for a few days. All was well until we went out to dinner. There was a 20-minute wait to get a table, which meant that three out of the four of us immediately whipped out our iPhones. Poor Adam was left in the dust, but perhaps more dangerously, we disconnected from one another. “Someone talk to me,” he pleaded.
I’m sure I’m in the majority when I say that I don’t know how I ever lived without the convenience of 24-7 access to, well, everything. Can’t remember the name of an actor? No problem, take out the phone and start Googling your way to the answer.
But have our fingers become too quick to text and Google out of habit? A recent article in the New York Times put that question out there in an article called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. In it Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor, talked about the downside of establishing an ingrained habit that can not only change neural pathways but also “mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.”
The scientific term for that molding is called plasticity and it is used to describe the flexibility of the nervous system to adapt and learn. Frederickson’s research shows that plasticity further affects the heart-brain connection. So the more you look up from your iPhone and interact with people, the more you literally strengthen your heart. And Face-to-face contact fosters empathy as well as improves overall health.
Frederickson’s research in social genomics— the study of how our personal history, social life or even loneliness affect gene expression in immune systems—also clearly shows that parents role-modeling screen-time behavior can be as life-altering as the genetics a child inherits. According to Frederickson, interrupting to text while ostensibly playing with your child or reading to her can “leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.”
But how do we translate the findings of social genomics to our own children? Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, social commentator Hannah Rosin explored the brave new American childhood of iPads and iPhones. Remember how we thought we were going down the rabbit hole when VCR’s were installed in mini-vans? Ever since viewing screens entered American homes, parents and educators have worried that children’s brains would turn to mush from too much watching. In 1999 the august American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that television viewing for children under the age of two affected brain development, particularly when it disrupted interaction between parents or caregivers.
Enter 21st century touch technology to complicate what seemed to be a straightforward directive against too much screen time for toddlers and young children. Touch technology was popularized by the iPad and it’s taken off among the toddler set where the swipe of a finger can move action figures, act like a paintbrush or manipulate shapes. It’s mind boggling to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of apps for games and reading and art can be easily packed into a gadget the same size as your average board book.
I remember when three year-old Adam sat on Ken’s lap as he maneuvered a mouse. I thought how revolutionary and how scary. It’s stunning to contemplate how much more ubiquitous technology has become over the last decade. As Rosin points out, “technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease.”
By 2010, there were more than 40,000 kids’ games and apps available on iTunes. In the iTunes “education” category, many of those best-selling apps targeted preschool or elementary school age-children. Apps were also available for children as young as 18 months. The AAP weighed in with a recommendation discouraging parents from using electronic media with children under 24 months.
Lisa Guernsey, author of the book Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Education Software Affects Your Young Child, offers guidance by identifying the three C’s of media consumption—content, context and child. Content, says Guernsey, is the way in which information is presented. Apps labeled as educational are not necessarily good for kids if children cannot fully comprehend the task at hand. Context relates to the way a parent uses social media. Like Fredrickson, Guernsey advises that social interactions are a critical part of using media particularly with babies and toddlers. The success of the first two C’s depends on parents taking the time to know their children. Each child is different, but on the whole parents should keep a kid away from apps or television directed at adults.
There has been no research to date that suggests that using an iPad will make your preschooler smarter or, alternatively, short circuit her neural pathways. But the iPad has only been around for three years—a relatively short time for scientists to secure grants to investigate the topic. Humans, however, have been around for a very long time and nothing improves one’s psychological outlook or better cultivates empathy than looking up from an iPhone screen, even if it is Face Time, and making a real, in-person connection.