Today's Kids Spend Too Much Time Staring At Screens

Technology is the servant, not the master.

03/10/2016 10:55 AM AEDT | Updated 03/10/2016 10:54 AM AEDT
Screentime became the number one argument in our house.

Ah, the penalties of live television.

Our producers at the Today Show had come across an expert who believed there was no such thing as the "terrible twos" -– no, really -– when it came to the natural state of things for toddlers. Rather, this expert maintained, it was in fact the 21st century situations we have all been placing our toddlers in the middle of –- shopping centres, noisy pubs and the like -– that were the real root of their out-of-control tantrums.

So what did I think?

I disagreed. Strongly. As toddlers, when my kids decided the moment deserved a mini meltdown, they didn't discriminate. At home, at the park, before a nap, after a nap, in public, in the car... just whenever the mood struck for a bit of push and pull with mum and dad, or, in fact, anyone else who was handy.

Sure, they're all grown up and adorable now, but the "terrible twos" is simply that time when kids decide to test their boundaries, I suggested, and the phenomenon has been around since Mary first told Joseph she'd had a right old day with the toddler Jesus, once again.

It's the age when little people suddenly discover they have a big voice, and by gosh they are going to use it to scream MINE!!!, while a river of tears and lime-green snot combines and courses its way down their cheeks and onto whichever floor they have hurtled themselves towards this time.

We've all been there. It's a rite of passage for parents and, perhaps, even a right of passage for the child.


In those early stages of parenthood, you bet. To smack or not to smack? To bribe or not to bribe? To momentarily leave your screaming child by the baked beans in aisle four making the point that this behaviour won't be tolerated but thereby risking public shaming by others –- and possibly a call to the authorities -– who are observing it all at close, eardrum-splitting range? Or just grin and bear it, knowing that eventually, this too shall pass.

So many choices, so difficult to know the right path.

But more recently, I pointed out as the cameras rolled, I've noticed a new, next-level toddler tanty: that moment when a little one has whatever digital device they've been given to keep them occupied, taken away.

It's never pretty, and a moment that always gives me a special kind of chill, because I can see what some experts say will almost always be the pain that lies ahead when kids become addicted to screens early.

With my own children now in their late teens and early twenties, I was lucky enough to miss this modern early parenting challenge of TDD (Toddler Digital Denial), because our family formed part of the crash-test-dummy generation of the technological age. Or "digital immigrants" as we're apparently now known.

There was no handbook. No well-trodden path we could learn from. Just a whole brave new world that was opening up before us -– kids and parents alike. PCs were only just becoming a "thing". And Gameboys were about as sophisticated as handheld digital devices got. But boy oh boy, were those games addictive.

And I admit we were naive. We didn't quite get when computers entered their classrooms and their bedrooms ("the teacher said I have to do it online mum!"), that the Net -– while holding incredible opportunities for learning -– also opened up a whole new nefarious world of shallows and shoals, of depths and demons, that were nothing less than incredibly dangerous to their still developing and hugely vulnerable hearts and minds. Worst of all was that we couldn't anticipate how just swiftly and silently the Net allowed them to depart to places unknown where we could not protect them.

Soon, screentime –- and how much was too much -- became the number one argument in our house. Trouble was, there weren't a lot of studies out there backing up what my husband and I felt in our bones was at stake: losing our kids to the online world. A world where there are no rules. And how attractive is a concept like that to young exploring minds?

In fact, what I realised is that if you give your child unfettered access to this world, you may as well dig a tunnel directly out of their bedroom all the way to the unknown outside world... with free entry to all back again, right into their bedrooms. A world you have no say in.

I'm the first to admit that I am far from having this whole business of parenting sorted. On an average day I'd probably give myself a five out of 10. Seven on a good one, three on a bad. But like every parent engaged in the struggle to juggle in this increasingly noisy, sometimes overwhelmingly complex world, I'm trying my best with what I know.

But as a general principle, I maintain that maximum personal engagement, most particularly in those early years, has to be the best way -– and my concern is that putting a screen in front of them too often with the stuff that merely distracts for hours on end, rather than as a genuine teaching tool, is the easy way out.

Our kids are spending too much time in front of screens, and too little time reading, talking, exploring, being active, or just engaged in good old-fashioned quiet time simply staring out the window day-dreaming.

And the evidence is pouring in. The latest studies show that seven out of 10 Aussie high school students are suffering sleep deprivation blamed on saturation-use of digital devices -– a factor some are linking to our declining national literacy and numeracy test performances.

Our obesity rates in this once-active nation blessed with the best, freshest food in the world, are soaring, with 22 percent of children aged aged five to 12 now classed as overweight or obese. That's more than double the number in the pre-online 1980s.

And with the rise of social media on these devices, bullying is at an all-time high, while teen self-esteem is plummeting to an all-time low as they stare at Instagram's never-ending photo feed of perfectly photo-shopped people and their often all-too-fake lives.

Meantime, toddlers are now growing up with parents documenting their every move, feeding it to social media consumed by the pursuit of online popularity. And those toddlers, of course, are taking it all in.

According to UNSW social policy researcher Myra Hamilton, "this is the first generation of children who have had their own childhood catalogued to the outside world." She warns parents that their children may come to resent them for the way they were portrayed online when they were way too young to have a say.

My concern is that by handing over a screen too early and too often, you are handing over a babysitter that, in many cases, you no longer control. And the earlier that happens, the harder it is to set boundaries later.

I don't write any of this as one who has got it right, but as one who has too frequently got it wrong. And I, too, have to watch myself when it comes to checking my phone. Recent estimates are that we adults are checking our phones and emails up to 150 times a day. And that means our quiet time, our reflective time as parents, is disappearing out that same window we should be more than occasionally staring out of ourselves.

But what about the educational value of screens, isn't that the great over-riding benefit in all of this as we move further into the 21st century, I hear you say?

Why don't I leave the final word to the educators themselves who know an ocean more than me on the subject and see all of this at the closest possible range: every day, at school, with our kids. Like Dr John Vallance, headmaster at Sydney Grammar, one of Australia's top educational institutions whose students regularly place in the top 1 percent in the state in tertiary rankings.

Dr Vallance sees computers as a distraction. "We see teaching as fundamentally a social activity," he says. "It's about interaction between people, about discussion, about conversation. We find students having laptops and iPads in the classroom inhibits conversation."

Dr Vallance has in fact banned students from bringing laptops to school and insists instead that they handwrite their assignments and essays until Year 10.

To back up his theory, the school has been studying the difference between handwritten and computer-typed tasks by students in Year 3 and Year 5. He says, "in creative writing tasks they find it much easier to write by hand, put their ideas down on a piece of paper, than they do on a keyboard."

As to suggestions this is all just dinosaur thinking, Dr Vallance insists, "I am in no way anti-technology. I love gadgets. And it's partly because we all love gadgets so much that we have these rules, otherwise we'd all just muck about.

"Technology is a servant, not the master," he says. "You can't end up having the tail wagging the dog, which I think it is at the moment."

More On This Topic