They are texting. They are on Instagram. They are on Facebook.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of two hours of screen time for children. However, studies show that children spend as much as seven to nine hours on their smart phones, mainly texting and gaming. And, the number of such children is growing. According to one study, U.S. teens send an average of 100 texts per day.
Younger children are getting addicted. In a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it was found that 75% of 4-year-old-children have smart phones. This is not a phenomenon limited to developed countries such as the United States of America. In an international comparative study done in five countries – Japan, India, Egypt, Indonesia, and Chile – it was found that 65% of the children surveyed had a mobile phone. Of these, 81% had a new handset. In India and Indonesia, children’s smart phone ownership is double that of parents.
Should we be concerned about children’s smart phone use? There are some concerns voiced by parents, teachers and other concerned groups:
Text bullying is sending embarrassing, mean,untrue, or hurtful message using cell phone text messaging, to or about someone. This can also include ‘sexting’, i.e. sending sexually suggestive text messages to someone or about someone.
Unlike traditional bullying, which happens in physical space and time, text bullying is easier, as it affords the bully some degree of anonymity. Bullies are also able to send hurt messages whenever they want, from wherever they want. Young children and teens are affected negatively by text bullying, as they are sensitive, and impressionable. This is more so when the child or teen looks for the approval of a peer group for social acceptance. Text bullying can lead to depression, drug use, and in extreme cases, even suicides.
Our children have difficulty making eye contact
The ‘texting’ generation is the “heads down” generation, used to keeping their heads down and eyes glued to their screens until and unless somebody interrupts them or sets and enforces limits. ‘Texting’ makes children so used to looking at an impersonal screen, that looking at a real person in the eye becomes difficult for them. Eye contact creates an emotional connection. The capacity for such an emotional connection may be lacking in today’s ‘texting’ generation.
Our children have difficulty engaging in real conversations
The fragmented exchange of words without any body language cues, nuances of tone, or emotional reactions may put children in danger of failing in real world, face-to-face conversations. Using an emoticon is not equivalent to expressions of joy, frustration, anger, or sadness. In real life conversations, there may be conflicts, and other numerous factors that are incidental, which are absent in ‘virtual’ conversations. This may lead to children not being trained well in real face-to-face and group conversations.
‘Sleep-texting’ is a growing phenomenon among children, especially teenagers, who reach out for their phones at night when their parents think they are asleep, and start texting, till midnight or well beyond that. They might wake up late and groggy, but with no recollection of their actions. Youngsters who do this obviously get less sleep, and perform badly at school. According to research, the sleep-delaying impact of blue light emitted from the phone is intensified in the dark. Xue Ming, professor of neuroscience and neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, in the journal of child neurology, says,
“We need to be aware that teenagers are using electronic devices excessively and have a unique physiology. They tend to go to sleep late and get up late. When we go against that natural rhythm, students become less efficient.”
Texting leads to mindlessness
Image courtesy: booktrust.org
Mindfulness is the ability to focus attention completely on immediate experience. It also involves embracing an attitude of openness, acceptance, curiosity, and novel thinking. Technology such as texting, obviously, fosters mindlessness rather than mindfulness.
Your child may be with you physically in the car, but mentally he/she is far away, with whomever he/she is chatting with. Many children manage multiple chats at the same time: they are in many places except where they physically are.
Children are too young to have the self-control and will power to pull themselves away from the allure of ‘talking’ to so many friends at the same time. Needless to say, it prevents them from experiencing and focusing on the present, and learn from their present experiences.
A question of connectedness
The basic issue boils down to just this:
- Smart phones in general, and texting in particular, are supposed to connect people to each other.
- But then, being connected to each other is only one aspect of life.
- Moreover, being connected only virtually is not the same as being connected in real life.
- Children, being young and immature, do not have enough self-regulation, self-control, or will power, to set limits on themselves regarding the use of their smart phone.
In this scenario, what parents, schools, and policy makers have to do is very clear.
- Do not buy a smart phone for very young children.
- Set limits on the use of smart phone for children of all ages, and enforce such limits.
- School authorities should have strict rules on children bringing mobile phones to school. Such rules should be enforced, whatever be the consequences.
- Adults, especially parents, should not spend their free time on their smart phones. This sets a negative example, which children will inevitably follow.
- Parents should take care not to use smart phones and other electronic gadgets as babysitters. Do spend time with you kids.
Technology is here to stay. No doubt about that. However, how we harness it and use it to our advantage is the real issue here. How well we are able to do that will determine the future of our children and our humanity.