By Dr. Michelle Hintz, Psychologist, for SouthFloridaReporter, June 15, 2015 – The prevalence of technology means that the amount of time children spend interacting with screens is increasing. This is a troubling trend, and there are numerous reasons why parents should not only carefully restrict children’s usage of technology, but also consider not letting their children use their cell phones.
First and foremost, cell phones were designed as a communication tool. Therefore, their primary functions are to facilitate interaction with others through text, calls, and even emails. But, more and more, children as young as 5 years of age are eager to get their own cell phone because they view it as an entertainment device. Even when using good judgment, many parents allow their child to entertain themselves with the parent’s cell phone. This, too, is problematic. Here are a few of my thoughts on the issue:
- It creates unclear boundaries and poses a lack of respect for privacy:
Regularly giving a child your phone to play with signals to them that what’s yours is theirs. Further, it can promote an entitlement mentality, in which the belief is instilled that they, the children, are equal or even more important than you because they are usurping your device., Giving them the phone says that the child should be entertained while you shop, do chores, etc. In some cases, it gives the child access to personal information, such as emails or texts, which they may not understand or to which they should not be exposed. The lack of respect for your privacy and ownership doesn’t augur well for future interactions with teenagers.
- It is a non-optimal entertainment choice:
If a child is staring at a screen, they miss opportunities for observing and interacting with the natural environment. Children learn social norms by watching and observing others around them. When staring at a screen in a public place, for the most part, they are no longer learning and they are not being active. They miss out on valuable life lessons including how to make good decisions with their money, learning about their neighborhoods, and the good, old-fashioned ‘art of conversation’.
- Life is not about constant entertainment:
Using a phone for entertainment prevents a child from learning to entertain themself. Children who are constantly entertained are often quick to whine and complain when made to participate in tasks they deem boring – which means everything from cleaning up after themselves to assisting in household tasks. They need to develop this ability – and self-control – for the future.
- Increased risk for screen addictions:
Allowing a child to have as much time playing with phones as they desire puts them at risk for dangerous screen addictions. I go into depth about this here and here, but it is a fact that the definition for screen addictions are extremely similar to those for more well-known and very serious addictions, such as to drugs and alcohol. This can too easily become a cycle. The more parents attach to technology then they are less able to attach to their child, and then the more likely the child is to turn to screens.
- Healthy mind, healthy body
Decreased physical movement is detrimental to people of all ages, and increases one’s chances for obesity. There is a link in children between restricted movement and developmental delay. While simply handing over a phone isn’t dangerous on one occasion, it can be the start of developmentally dangerous habits. And the research is clear. Kids today spend significantly less time playing outside compared to children in the 1970s. They are missing out on necessary physical activity as well as practice in social development, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Kids today are experiencing unheard of rates of obesity and diabetes, which have lifelong consequences. It’s our duty as parents and caregivers to impede this problem, not encourage it by sharing cell phones or allowing them at the dinner table, etc.
- Increased risk for mental and emotional development problems:
Our brains are constantly growing from birth until age 21, and brain development early on is particularly affected by environmental stimuli. Attention deficits, problems with executive functioning, and increased impulsivity, among other things, have been found in children who were over-exposed to technology at a very young age. In addition, these children have been shown to be poor at self-regulation and are immature in their social relationships.
The pervasiveness of hand held devices, such as cell phones, have made this type of research and knowledge necessary. It can be difficult to tote around a whining child and withhold your phone, especially knowing it would result in that tiny moment of peace a parent can desperately need, but we should all try to resist. We can remind ourselves that phones are just for communication, and there is a whole world out there full of activities to be conquered, and people with whom we should interact.