By: Dr Mary Aiken
Source: The Telegraph
Not long ago I was sitting on a train going from Dublin to Galway. A mother and baby came to sit across the aisle and began feeding. In a wonderful display of dexterity, she held the bottle in one hand and clutched a mobile phone in the other.
Out of the corner of my eye, I observed her with a researcher’s curiosity. Ethnography is the immersive study of people and cultural phenomena, when the researcher is embedded in the social group being studied. As a cyberpsychologist, I am living in a continual ethnographic study. Hardly an hour goes by when I don’t notice how people are interacting with technology.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed. The mother looked exclusively at her phone while the baby fed. The baby was gazing foggily upward, as babies do, and looking adoringly at the mother’s jaw, as the mother continued to gaze adoringly at her device. For half an hour, as the feeding went on, the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many millions of mums and dads around the world were no longer looking directly into the eyes of their babies while they were feeding or talking to them. What if that direct contact was in fact one-half or one-quarter as much as the days when my generation was raised? How will this seemingly small behavioural shift play out over time? Would a generation of babies be impacted? Could it change the human race?
Nobody seems to be even talking about this issue, this real risk, except those with an interest in cyberpsychology, but someday there might be writing on the screen of all mobile phones that says: ‘Warning: Not Looking at Your Baby Could Cause Significant Developmental Delays’.
Have you heard that the esteemed body of the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen use, including television, for children under two? No TV for babies. No apps with funny cartoons on a parent’s or babysitter’s mobile phone. And yet there’s been an explosion in electronic media marketed directly at infants: a multimillion-dollar industry selling computer games for very young children – some as young as nine months.
The tablet is now ubiquitous as a “toy” for toddlers – and parents often marvel at the swiftness with which their child learns to swipe a touchscreen. Unlike a desktop or laptop, a tablet can be used by any child who is old enough to point a digit.
The fundamental problem, I believe, is the modern perception (or misconception) that children need to be kept busy and occupied at all times. Giving a child a tablet is a convenient way for parents or caregivers to grab a few minutes, or an hour, for themselves. What’s the harm? Besides, what about all those other parents giving their children these little handy screens? Millions of people can’t be wrong, can they?
But they are. This is a field I’ve researched in depth —and in 2015 published a review paper, “Cyber Babies: The Impact of Emerging Technology on the Developing Infant.” It’s hard to know where to start, as I begin unpacking all my concerns about cyber babies using devices.
Somewhere along the line, a misinterpretation of neuroscience has led parents to believe that all stimulation for a child is good stimulation. Even if these devices in themselves are not proven to be harmful, there is significant harm simply in the lack of time spent doing things in the real world that are known to be important for development.
It has been shown repeatedly that at least 60 minutes per day of unstructured play — when children entertain themselves, either alone or with another child and without adult or technological interference — is essential. This is when a child uses imagination and creativity, when he or she practises decision-making and problem-solving, develops early maths concepts, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
In Britain, an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among pre-school-age children has been reported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking, and socialization — as well as an increase in aggressive and antisocial behaviour, obesity, and tiredness.
A growing number of young children who are beginning school without enough dexterity to pick up and play with building blocks. One gathering of teachers in Manchester called for help with “tablet addiction.” A teacher in Northern Ireland described young students who were allowed to play computer games excessively before bed arriving at class the next day with what you might call a “digital hangover,” and attention spans “so limited that they might as well not be there.”
Jo Heywood, headmistress of a private primary school in Ascot, has been outspoken about her observation —shared by other educators — that children are starting school at five and six years old with the communication skills of two- and three-year-olds, presumably because their parents or caregivers have been “pacifying” them with iPads rather than talking to them. This is seen in children from all backgrounds — disadvantaged and advantaged.
A 2015 consumer report shows that most American children get their first mobile phone when they are six years old. This shocks me. This is before what in psychology we call the age of reason, when a child enters a new state of logic and begins to understand the surrounding world – learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice.
Now, with a phone in hand, these children are being catapulted into cyberspace before they are psychologically capable of making sense of it. We can’t even make sense of it yet.
Advice for parents | How to protect your children from screen overuse
- Don’t use a digital babysitter. Babies and toddlers need a real caregiver, not a screen companion, to cuddle and talk with. There is no substitute for a real human being.
- Wait until your baby is two or three years old before they get screen time. And make a conscious decision about screen rules for them.
- Monitor your own screen time. Whether or not your children are watching, be aware of how much your television or computer is on at home – and how often you check your mobile phone in front of them.
- Ask your children about their real world day, but don’t forget to ask them about what’s happening in their cyber life.
- Don’t snoop or spy – studies show that children with overbearing parents just learn to be more secretive, and won’t turn to them when they run into trouble. In other words, be vigilant but not a vigilante.
- If you find inappropriate content, resist the urge to shut down or confiscate their device. You are depriving them of their entire support system. They need to reach out to friends. Let them.
- Finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents are for.
We do know, though, that technology has changed childhood in innumerable ways. Cyberspace is where they are learning to read, doing their schoolwork, dressing up avatars, watching cartoons, and meeting friends both fictional and real.
A large US study of 8-12 year-olds in 2014 found that a quarter reported using Facebook, even though you are meant to be 13 or older to be eligible to activate an account. The psychologists and educators behind the report concluded that the results were troubling: “Engaging in these online social interactions prior to necessary cognitive and emotional development that occurs throughout middle childhood could lead to negative encounters or poor decision-making.”
Facebook and other social networks have always claimed that it is “almost impossible” to identify a child, and therefore they can’t actively implement and police their own rules. I would argue that, when it comes to minors, there is an urgent need to develop more effective ways of verifying the age of a new user on social networks. The real-world example would be an off-licence or a pub that’s not allowed to sell alcohol to underage individuals. Would it be okay if the sales assistant or barman didn’t believe it was necessary to ask for proof of legal age for drinking? Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was known to keep a tight lid on the use of screens in his own household — and Silicon Valley’s most tech-advanced parents seem to be the ones who are most strict about Internet access for their children. But burdening parents with all the responsibility of cyber-regulations is asking them to raise their families in a lawless environment, a cyber frontier where they must become their own 24/7 sheriff or marshal.
Age-inappropriate content is everywhere online, and any tech-savvy child knows how to access it. In the real world, kids are kept from buying tickets to movies with sexual and violent content. Printed pornography is kept in special areas of convenience stores. So why is it so easy to find online?
Perhaps the fact that cyberspace is not a physical space with tangible dangers creates an illusion of safety. We access cyberspace from the comfort of our own homes and offices, from our cars and commuter trains – places that are all regulated carefully. But cyberspace offers countless risks. Even the basic laws that the government applies to gambling, drugs, pornography, and breast implants are not in place.
We need to do more for families – and stop expecting parents to paddle their own canoes. Children need government protection in cyberspace, just as they are protected in real life. The US military has a NIPRNet (pronounced “nipper net”), basically a private internet. Why isn’t there a NIPRNet for kids? A protected place – a shallow end of the pool – where they can go to safely explore.
Many experts argue that the positives of the internet outweigh the damage. If we accept that children are online, will be staying online for greater and greater amounts of their lives, and are by and large having useful and positive experiences there – learning to read, learning to make friends, and improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination – then can we accept responsibility for the damaging things, the disturbing content that could have lasting ill effects on an entire generation?
I would argue that that this particular gamble is too great. We cannot gamble with the future development of children who will someday be adults who weren’t cared for and raised in the best way. A generation of what I describe as “cyber-feral children.”
Adapted from The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken, published by John Murray (£20). To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk