I’ve mastered the art of morning mommy multitasking. With my daughter on my left hip and my phone in my right hand, I move around the kitchen making coffee, prepping a bottle and scrolling through work email. My 9-month-old reaches for the phone with her tiny, chubby fingers and I pull it away. Has my own behavior — it may be borderline smartphone addiction — become something she thinks she needs to learn? She must think that a constant need to reach for our phone is normal behavior, like holding a spoon or walking.
She was born into a world where Instagram is her baby book and Amazon deliveries allow toys to be delivered to our doorstep rather than picked up at Toys “R” Us. She is a member of Generation Alpha — those who were born after the year 2010 — considered the most connected and technology literate group of people ever.
With technologies like tablets, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics on the verge of being mainstream, the potential of her world both excites and scares me. I spend a lot of time wondering: are the possibilities of technology for children today limitless or limiting?
One of the hottest parenting debates today is screen time, the hours young children spend using smartphones or tablets to play games or watch videos. According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, 98 percent of U.S. households with children eight and under, regardless of income, have access to a mobile device. That is up from 52 percent just six years ago. UNICEF also reports that while children’s overall screen time has held steady for years at 2 1/4 hours, more and more of it is taking place on handheld devices: 48 minutes a day in 2017. (An energetic and passionate session at the recent Techonomy NYC conference explored the challenge of tech addiction, especially for children. -ed.)
I would like to think that perhaps I can hold off on screen time till my daughter is 2, maybe 3. I try to avoid my phone when I am with her, but I take it out to take a picture of my firstborn and there it is, back in my hands. There are text messages to read and social media updates to see. I am conflicted between my excitement for the innovations of technology and my longing for a more simpler time (playing Super Nintendo when I was a kid myself).
I know I can only control so much in her world. Technology will carry over into school. Textbooks are now viewed on tablets and digital technologies can provide children personalized education. According to a recent survey by Education Week Resource Center, most educational leaders say that students spend the right amount of screen time in school.
In that same survey, the majority of leaders (57 percent) report that digital technologies are an important resource used to personalize the learning experience based on each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. Relatively few say either that technologies are central to their mission (16 percent) or that they do not use them at all (3 percent).
Most of us know Eric Carle’s classic children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Today, it can be brought to life via an augmented reality app. Screens are not going away. They will be more and more integrated into our lives. But balance is important. Playtime, boredom, imagination — all are key to childhood learning, and cannot get lost in the connected world.
What’s the solution to finding that balance? Kids learn more in their first three years than in the rest of their life. Their brain is most malleable at this stage. Here are some tips both from my research and my experience on how to balance the benefits of technology with the virtues of learning without screens.
- Set a limitation and stick to it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an hour per day for children ages 2-5. There are expectations of course — keeping a toddler busy on an airplane, for example, is understandable.
- No screens during key bonding moments — that goes for kids and parents. While bathing your baby, having dinner, or reading books, keep the phone in a different room to avoid temptation.
- Use the screen time for educational entertainment — there are plenty of games and videos that can support your child’s learning style.
- When children are old enough to comprehend ideas, take the time to let them know the power of the technology they are holding — and its potential downsides.
Rebecca Wrenn is Creative Director at Sweeney, a creative marketing agency.