“Just five more minutes!”
The girls’ heads are crammed against one another, their shoulders pressed together as they crouch over the few-inch-square screen of my SmartPhone.
“Hey, you’re pushing me!”
“You’re pushing me!”
Above the din of their arguing, Katy Perry and Juicy J sing an uptempo duet, to which my kids would be listening if the older one hadn’t just snatched the phone off the table and begun waving it just out of the younger one’s reach.
“Hey, give it back!”
This is my cue to restore order. Put a stop to the chaos before it officially begins.
“OK, that’s enough. Give me the phone – if you can’t share, no one gets to have it.”
So much for putting an end to the chaos! The moment I pry the little black rectangle out of my 6-year-old’s claw-like fist, a cacophony of mewls and howls ensues – rivaling the pop music my children so adore that I’m now attempting to shush as it blares from my hand-held device.
As our children’s demeanors quickly liquify into full melt-down mode, Craig and I raise our eyebrows at one another. This little episode has presented us with yet more evidence to prove our growing suspicion that technology, in all of its insidious little forms, makes our children crazy.
Of course we know that lots of television isn’t good for kids – that’s why we limit our kids’ time in front of the tube to one 30-minute show per day (for the most part, if we’re not too busy trying to clean the house, or responding to emails, or writing this column… in which case, one show might turn into two, or more – hey, we aren’t perfect; we’re parents)! Of course I’ve read the studies showing that the more time children spend watching television, the more likely they are to have health and behavior problems. So we make sure that the television isn’t blaring for three hours a day at our house (which, surprisingly or not, is the average amount of time most American kids ages 3-11 spend watching TV per day.) But if I were to add up all the time the girls spend watching Katy Perry music videos on my iPhone, or playing Angry Birds on Dad’s iPad, the sedentary time my kids spend glued to a device may indeed be more than I would have guessed. And studies show that all of that screen time does indeed impact children’s development and behavior – just as Craig and I are beginning to realize.
In his TedX talk, father, pediatrician and researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis theorizes that all of this screen time actually reorganizes how modern children think, behave and solve problems. His studies subjecting baby mice to prolonged exposure to rapid image change television (think SpongeBob SquarePants) found that the overstimulated mice were less proficient in exploring, and then remembering novel objects, than control-group mice, and were also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors.
Overstimulated mice were not learning or acting like normal mice, Dr. Christakis posited, because their developing brains were preconditioned to expect constant high levels of input that lead to inattention later in life. Constant stimulation of the brain during critical periods of its development conditioned the mind to a frenetic reality that doesn’t actually exist, he explained, making it difficult for those mice to focus their attention long enough on any single action to be able to learn from it.
Put into human terms, those annoyingly fragmented Baby Einstein DVDs were anything but helpful for my children’s intellectual development. Basically, the brain “grows” by creating new synapses, or connections between neurons, which transmit information that our brains then process and use. When our kids are subjected to extended periods of high stimulation, whether in rapid scene change television shows or fast-paced (and usually violent) video games, their brains send more and more stress-related information through their brains’ synapses. Over time those stress-stimulated synapses, or neural pathways, become the paths of least resistance for any kind of information disseminated throughout the brain. So, the frantic pace at which so much of what is flashed in front of our children’s eyes actually leads to a stressful response in the brain that over time becomes stronger and stronger – leading, perhaps, to monumental meltdowns when it’s time to turn off the Katy Perry music video.
The good news, however, is that other kinds of less-stressful stimulation also create neural pathways in the brain, pathways that better promote conscious thought, intelligent reasoning, and emotional temperance. According to Christakis, all parents really need to do is focus more on real-time play, and less on fast-paced media and technology, to help promote healthy brain development in their children. This means getting outside, playing board games or reading with your children, and engaging in other modes of meaningful connection with your kids on a regular basis.
What Craig and I have come to realize is that it isn’t our kids who necessarily demand all of this screen time; it’s actually our own frantic, unfocused schedules that dictate how much time our kids spend in front of a screen. When we silence the ringer, ignore the texts and wait to respond to those emails, we are better able to be present and engaged with our children. And you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that meaningful engagement with your children is good for their development.