COLUMN: Deciding to delay screen time

How much, or how little, technology is beneficial for toddlers?

An anti-cellphone rant made by Louis CK on the Conan O’Brien show has been making the rounds online.

The comedian calls smartphones “toxic,” arguing they prevent children from developing empathy, make it easier to bully, and keep them from learning how to be alone.

While my daughter Elise is only two and not yet near the age we need to debate when (and whether) she should get her own phone, I can empathize with the pressure parents of older children face when it comes to providing them with the latest technology.

Even at Elise’s tender age, my husband and I have already talked about whether or not we should buy a tablet computer. A few parents I know let their toddlers play on their iPads and smartphones, and it’s amazing how quickly they figure out how to open their favourite apps and scroll through videos.

The majority of parents I talk to are well aware that we shouldn’t let our children watch too much television (or, arguably, any TV at all before the age of two according to the American Academy of Pediatrics). But many of us have this nagging feeling that our kids might be left behind if we keep the more interactive and “useful” technologies out of their hands.

Last year, a former neighbour told me how his five-year-old daughter could turn on the computer, enter the password, open her favourite website to access kid-friendly games, and print off the colouring pages she received as prizes upon completing the games, all by herself. As a new parent, you wonder, should my kid be able to do that by then as well?

Other parents I know turn to the iPad or smartphone as their salvation when they need some quiet time or to distract their child from having a meltdown. Most do impose time limits. And at least their children are learning something, often noting they only download educational apps. I can easily picture myself taking that route as well. Heck, even my Today’s Parent magazine recommends children’s apps to me in each issue.

It would be so easy. And yet, I’m wary.

In an April New York Times column titled “The Child, the Tablet and the Developing Mind,” a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is quoted as being concerned kids will miss out in learning about solitude if they’re consistently pacified by a device.

Says the professor, Sherry Turkle, “They need to be able to explore their imagination. To be able to gather themselves and know who they are. So someday they can form a relationship with another person without a panic of being alone. If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”

The Times columnist also quotes Dr. Gary Small, director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, as saying that if people spend too much time with one technology and less time interacting with people, it could hinder the development of certain communication skills.

The tablet conversation with my husband was prompted by a long car ride to B.C.’s Interior. Such a device could provide a welcome distraction for Elise.

In the end, we decided we didn’t want to go there. We already regulate TV time, and we didn’t want another device we’d have to say “no” to.

Plus, I share Turkle and Louis CK’s worry that my daughter’s generation won’t learn how to be alone and “do nothing”  – it disturbs me to see so many people who can’t seem to sit in a waiting room or a vehicle without fiddling with their phones.

While I do sometimes worry about her “keeping up” with her friends, my husband does not. Using technology that started out as foreign to older generations will come naturally to our kids, he argues.

And so, we agree we’ll wait.

And our road trip? Elise was a surprisingly well-behaved and pleasant traveller. She sang songs, took care of her baby doll and took a nap, albeit brief.

If we had shoved a smartphone in her hands, I wouldn’t have known a toddler with six-word sentences could chat with us for hours.

Kristine Salzmann is a former Black Press reporter and mom to two-year-old Elise. She writes monthly for The Leader on parenting issues.

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