How Tech Changes Families
Screens and gadgets can affect children's early development and disconnect families
You probably saw that funny old YouTube video of a 1-year-old sitting in front of a fashion magazine, gamely touching and swiping the page with her fingers in an effort to get the images to move. At the time the iPad was relatively new and we were still really impressed at how quickly babies who could barely hold a crayon could master a touchscreen.
The guy who made the video, titled “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work,” said it showed how Steve Jobs had changed the world—making print obsolete. But in her new book, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair is worried about how the iPad is changing the baby. The baby’s preference for the iPad may be bad news for print, she argues, but it can also be harmful to the child, and the adult she will become.
The effect of touchscreens and other electronic devices on young children is an explosive issue. Kids are very, very responsive to the kind of stimulation they get from video games, educational or not. In the two years since this video was made, an enormous industry has responded with apps for babies and preschoolers. Some of them are very valuable, especially for children with cognitive or emotional challenges.
But they’re also hard to put down. When developmental psychologists recommend that these kids should be playing outdoors, or playing with blocks, or playing make-believe with other kids instead of playing with screens, I’m sure a lot of parents think it all sounds so last century; these kids are getting a head start on becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg, no?
In The Big Disconnect, Dr. Steiner-Adair has a lot to say about how electronic devices are changing the lives of children, especially their connection to the important people in their lives. And while the “disconnect” is most palpable in households with teenagers—where parents and kids often seem to inhabit different planets—it’s her observations about early childhood that I find the most newsworthy. Yes, electronic devices have exposed older kids to many new perils, from naked selfies to cyberbullying. But it’s in the preschool years, she argues, that screens may be affecting the very way their brains grow and develop.
In her book Dr. Steiner-Adair takes a close-up look at child development and describes very persuasively the kind of learning that goes on in unplugged play in the preschool years—the motor, cognitive, emotional, and social skills that are being built as toddlers explore the playground, build pillow forts, pretend to be princesses, play board games, and fight and make up with their siblings.
In one rather vivid example, she recounts meeting a 4-year-old girl who tells her excitedly that playing dress-up is her favorite thing to do. It turns out that what this little girl means by dress-up is an iPad app that allows her to select items of clothing—and shoes, jewelry, other accessories—to put together a virtual outfit. Dr. Steiner-Adair describes the rich “sensory, social and emotional interactions” that go on in real dress-up play: handling the clothing, changing in and out of things, imagining scenarios, negotiating with playmates over who gets to wear the tiara—”finding out just how far you can boss a friend around before it spoils a good time.” None of this is happening, she argues, during the hours this 4-year-old logs every week on the iPad clicking on pictures of pumps vs. open-toed shoes.
It takes a toll, she argues. Preschool and kindergarten teachers report kids who are more impulsive and less able to wait their turn, make transitions, engage actively in learning, and calm themselves when they’ve had a setback—generally work and play well with others. She worries that intense early exposure to electronic entertainment is the culprit. As she puts it:
“The brain patterns itself after the ‘environmental input’ it receives, be it cuddling or computer games. Tech can quickly establish itself as preferred territory in the young developing brain and come to dominate it at the expense of other essential but slower-growing connections that involve the complexities of thought, emotional signaling, and the distinctly human rhythmic back and forth of communication.”
But as much as Dr. Steiner-Adair focuses on the problems of babies glued to screens, she’s just as concerned with the negative effects on those children of parents being unable to put down their phones, tablets, and laptops. Again, she describes in detail how intently babies watch their parents and tune into their distraction. She posits that multi-tasking parents are undermining “the deepest, most profoundly defining influence in a child’s formation of self,” that competing for attention with parental devices undermines that healthy development and a secure sense of self.
Together but separate
As work and home life bleed together, she sees children distracted from the business of childhood—learning—by parents who are not really “with” them even when they’re sharing meals, taking them to school, or supervising bedtime.
You may object that in making the case against multi-tasking The Big Disconnect is largely speculative—it is certainly not based on double-blind studies of the outcomes of children whose parents texted while watching them play as toddlers. And Dr. Steiner-Adair is certainly sticking her neck out when she argues that some kids who are diagnosed with ADHD (she is very careful to say not all, or even most) may be showing symptoms, instead, of fragmented family life and parental inattention, but it’s absolutely worth exploring.
What does it mean when a baby’s first word isn’t “Mama” or “Dada” but “Phone”? Maybe nothing, but given what a dramatic effect electronic devices have had on the texture of family and home life, intruding on and disrupting what has always been a private space shared by parents and children, it has to be taken seriously.
The Big Disconnect is available on Amazon.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, is a clinical psychologist and school consultant. She is also the creator of Full of Ourselves, a social-emotional program for girls. For more modern parenting tips from Dr. Steiner-Adair, read 13 Ways to Boost Your Daughter’s Self-Esteem.