In my parents’ day, if they had questions on child rearing, all they had were a few books and the advice of their own parents. And as any parent will tell you, grandparents are never shy about giving their children advice on how to raise their own children.
But something strange and new happened to my grandparents’ generation, something that came along and fundamentally changed the way people interact with each other: television. Now families no longer had to speak to each other, they had the TV to turn their attention to. The generation before had the same experience with radio.
Inevitably, the TV lost some of its luster when parents realized that staring all day at “the idiot box,” as my parents called it, was turning their kids’ brains to mush. My parents’ generation was no different when Ataris, Nintendos, and eventually Xboxes started taking over.
So my parents did the same thing their parents had done, the same thing any caring parent would do—they turned off the idiot box despite our screaming, told us to go outside and make friends, and do something.
No matter how much we complained, the idiot box stayed off, and off we stomped outside. Then something amazing happened—we invented games with balls and sticks and bottle caps, we rode our bikes, and we made friends with the other neighborhood kids whose parents had also told them only to be inside before the streetlights turned on. Sure, there were a few kids we never saw, the ones who seemed to spend every waking moment glued to the screen. And we were jealous of those damned lucky kids.
My parents’ generation was sailing through uncharted waters. Home video game consoles were a new technology, and nothing like it had existed before. Surely this was worse than television! How had their grandparents handled the radio? And how had their parents handled the idiot box? How were they supposed to know what to do?
They had no idea. They just made it up as they went along.
These days parents have a much more daunting task—dealing with the overwhelming ubiquity of the Internet. Everyone has a smartphone, iPad, iPod Touch, tablet, laptop, netbook, Chromebook, or something that has instant access to the entirety of human knowledge and myriad games and pictures and other distractions. In my house alone we have a desktop computer, three laptops, three iPads, four iPhones, and a netbook. And my children, aged 8 and 4, know how to use all of them.
So how in the world is a parent supposed to respond when a child wants to do nothing more than stare at an iPod playing Crossy Road on a beautiful sunny day? When teens go to their room for bed, how many willingly put their phones down and actually go to sleep? How many stay up for hours talking, texting, playing games, browsing Instagram, or doing other things they’d rather their parents not know about?
The easy answer is to say “no,” take the phone away for good, and cut off all Internet access, but that’s not enough. It’s also a great way to change a normal teenager into a rebellious monster.
Most children don’t understand that their brains continue to develop until they are in their mid-20s. All they know is that they want to check what their Facebook friends are up to, and they want it—no, need it—now. Most are not able to self-regulate and would spend more time than they should if allowed, and parents, myself included, seem to think that more screen time leads to, well, bad things.
Unfortunately, recent research shows that the assumption that screen time is detrimental is true. According to Harvard University sleep medicine professor Charles Czeisler, writing in the journal Nature, artificial light such as that given off by smartphones and laptops affects certain neurotransmitters that disrupt the circadian rhythm, causing people to sleep poorly.
A 2014 study on preteens’ nonverbal emotion cues also supported parents’ fears. Sixth-graders, who themselves estimated an average of four hours a day of screen time, were shown pictures of 50 faces and asked to identify the emotion shown. Those who were kept at an outdoor camp without any screen time for only five days had significantly improved scores compared to controls. Whether that result was because of increased social interaction or the absence of Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter is not clear, but I suspect (and I would hazard that most parents would agree) it is likely a combination of both. Adding more fuel to the fire, research of the brains of so-called teenage Internet addicts shows structural and functional changes that can negatively affect emotional processing, attention, decision making, and cognition.
So how much is too much? Where do parents draw the line? A half-hour a day? One hour? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time a day for children under 18, and none at all for toddlers 2 years and under. Should parents simply do what our parents did and take away the smartphones and order their children outside? We should expect large-scale Hunger Games-type rebellions if we do.
Or we could simply do what Taiwanese lawmakers did this year. The Protection of Children and Youths Welfare and Rights Act, a law that bans children under 18 from smoking, drinking, and using drugs, was expanded to include “unreasonable” use of electronic devices. Parents who fail to uphold the law are subject to a fine of about $1,600, though the law does not specify what “unreasonable” is and would be essentially impossible to enforce with any constancy.
Whatever the answer may be, parents today are experimenting on their children just like parents of every other generation did. The major difference is that it was significantly easier for our parents to turn off the television and ban them from our bedrooms. Cellphones and tablets are much more portable, and much more versatile, than my old 13-inch RCA black-and-white TV with the ridiculous rabbit ears antenna.
My own idea, which I’m sure my children will hate, is to have only one charge cable in the entire house, and to keep it in the kitchen. Devices may not be recharged during the day, so when the battery dies, it’s dead for the day, and the device is put away. If multiple children have devices that need to be charged, only one can be charged at a time, so the children will have to cooperate with each other to work out a schedule.
While this idea may lead to some Lord of the Flies-type anarchy initially, it will doubtless force kids to cooperate with each other and work their differences out.
And if any children are reading this and didn’t get the Lord of the Flies reference, put your phone down and start reading.
That goes for adults, too.