Screen Time – Who’s Running the Asylum?

November 1, 2019 | by brenda maas

“You know what I really hate?” announced Number 2, out of the proverbial blue. “It’s when I see people at Walmart at like 11 at night with their babies playing on their cell phone and stuff.”

This comment from my son, who had just turned 19, made me pause.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Baby Boomer; I don’t hate the digital age. I’m a proud Gen Xer. You know, the forgotten generation. The ones currently in Sandwich Mode – dealing with aging parents while attempting to launch our own offspring.

The fact that this burgeoning adult, who is not really a Millennial – the same person who LOVED repeatedly watching Thomas the Tank Engine videos as a preschooler, and who can be engaged in YouTube videos for seemingly hours – shared my sentiments got me thinking. And researching.

Type, "Effects of screen time on brain development" into any search engine and a multitude of hits pop up. Yet, one phrase seems to stick out: Too much.

As with many controversial subjects in modern society, the ambiguous "too much" resounds as the tipping point. So, of course, I continue to wonder: How much is too much?

Step back in time

Imagine, if you can, what society thought when Henry Ford rolled down the road with the first Model T. Every farmer and small-town resident must have gawked at the loud, noisy, messy contraption and thought the motorized vehicle would never fly. Yet, drive – and fly – we did. Now, a century later, we are looking for faster, cleaner, more innovative ways to travel. Perhaps teleporting is next? (Harry Potter and I both keep an open mind.)

As a society, we can be slow to change. Well, maybe, that is not true. Modern society, or at least the last two or three centuries, has been developing technology at an ever-increasing pace. When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, it seemed like an expensive fad. Now, according to recent Pew Research Center data, 96 percent of Americans own a mobile phone of some kind, with Apple dominating 43 percent of the U.S. market. So much for that fad.

However, with technological advances – no matter how amazing – comes growing pains.

Back to Ford and his car. The first to grasp the concept of using motorized vehicles were likely young people with older people eventually, grudgingly adopting the new device as a tool.

Are you following me? Notice any similarities? There’s no denying that those born into the generational genesis of cars evolved into owning the technology and developed an entire culture around it (think drive-in theaters, carhops, and '57 Chevys). That same technology, a machine that made everyday life easier, became society’s ultimate status symbol – a harbinger of success.

Time travel

Go back to our modern-day search engine and type in “car songs.” You will promptly be shown "115 Songs About Cars and Driving.” The pervasive culture went beyond embracing the new technology to memorializing The Car.

That same technology and the machine it made – the car – is responsible for 1.25 million road crash deaths each year, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel.

Now, follow me and bounce back to our newest technology – let’s call it screens.

Study after study supports the premise that too much screen time for children (especially babies, toddlers, and preschoolers) can negatively impact development. Within the past year, the most conclusive study solidified links between screen time and healthy development as summarized in this January 2019 TIME article:

Growing data suggests, exposing young children to too much time in front of a TV or computer can have negative effects on their development, including issues with memory, attention, and language skills.

In the latest look at the topic, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics that more screen time is linked to poorer progress on key developmental measures such as communication skills, problem-solving, and social interactions among young kids over time.

Here’s where the tough love comes in: This isn’t a news flash people.

As that previously self-professed Gen Xer, a child raised during the Regan era, a person who thoroughly understands the craze that MTV and the new-fangled cable television created, I fully support moderation.

I don’t scoff at new-fangled devices, but I'm also not the first to jump into a new purchase – likely, I would have hung onto my horse for a few years longer than the average cowboy.

Just as Ford’s Model T changed our society forever, so have mobile devices. But it is us – the users and the parents whose job it is to model; to teach moderation and self-control to our children – who cause the damage.

My father-in-law, a retired educator, has a saying I will always remember: Who’s running the asylum?

Technology is amazing, scary, and always evolving, as are we. So, who's in control – us or the machines? It’s time to look in the mirror and understand what we see.

Or, listen to that 19-year-old. He’s pretty much #SpotOn.

Originally printed in the November 2019 issue of Simply Family Magazine

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