Phone Zombie Children

Portable and “wearable” computers, according to designers, are supposed to enhance the human experience.  Like science fiction cyborgs with a fitting over one eye, the user goes through the world with “augmented reality,” being fed data about what he’s seeing.  So far though, the most ubiquitous portable computer, the smart phone, seems to de-augment reality.  The user walks through the world texting, until he caroms off a lamppost that reality put in his way.

The latest generation of kids are growing up with much of their reality supplanted by screen time.  Phone apps and tablets designed for toddlers are perhaps teaching them, mostly entertaining them, certainly keeping them quiet.  The proponents of this technology brag that it enhances their learning, teaching them words and math, making learning fun. The detractors worry that these devices are raising a generation of zombies: drooling slaves to their screens, unable to have a conversation, much less hold down a job.

The scientific jury is out on this subject.  We won’t know for another 10 years how this generation will turn out.  There were similar worries for my generation, the first raised with television, and we haven’t seemed to make more zombies than before.  However, small screens are different than a TV set.  Instead of just watching it in a room and then walking away to do other things, now you bring the screen with you everywhere you go.  And you interact with it- ask it questions, communicate through it, play games with it.

One thing we do know- these devices can be addictive, which affects at least some people, which we’ll go into more below.  For your child’s mental development, well-being, and happiness, stick with the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen use, applicable to TVs, PCs, phones and tablets.  Don’t allow your child under 3 years-old to use these much at all.  This is a time of critical brain development, when the abilities to learn, to practice interactions, and to love and be loved, are hard-wired.  It’s best for the human parent to do this, since the computer as child-rearer is nowhere near a “mature technology.”

Everyone knows of a computer addict.  It’s often a teenager or young adult, raised on video games, who can’t quit.  Holed up in their rooms, they play and play, not showering or doing homework, mawing junk food without thought. They don’t get jobs or boyfriends or girlfriends.  Their parents wring their hands, torn between enabling their kids’ addiction and the horrible behavior that ensues if they cut them off.

Like drug addicts, these kids become monsters when their devices are removed. They scream that the parents hate them, and that they hate the parents back.  They break things, steal and lie, then leave the house to get their fix on a friend’s computer, or a stolen phone.  Even toddlers can display this behavior when their tablets or phones are taken away, throwing violent tantrums until the parents acquiesce.

Like we discussed above, the science is still out about how harmful screens- computers, games, and phones- are to children.  One question: will they turn only some people into zombies; like alcohol, where a few people get addicted, but most people drink in moderation?  Or are they more like heroin, so addictive that any exposure is risky?

There’s no doubt that these devices are helpful to busy parents, keeping the toddler quiet when necessary, like when waiting in an office or the DMV.  Otherwise the parent must keep the toddler quiet themselves, when simultaneously trying to have adult conversations.  But when are screens too much?  What’s the line between raising an intelligent, happy, and loving kid; and letting the screens turn the kid into a computer zombie?

While waiting for more science, The American Academy of Pediatrics has put out guidelines for children’s “media diet,” based on what we do know.  Babies under 18 months-old should have no screen time.  Kids between 18 and 24 months can have a little, but it needs to be “high quality” (think PBS), and parents should sit with the child to monitor and talk about what they’re seeing.  Kids between 3 and 5 years should max out at only one hour per day, again high quality, with the parent present.  Over 6 years, the screen time should be limited to not supplant more important activities like family meals, reading, playing with friends, and sleeping in a screen-free bedroom. 

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