November 14, 2013

Attack of the Hand Held Devices

Mary Ian McAteer, MD, FAAP
Private practice pediatrician
Indianapolis, Indiana

I am all for establishing screen time rules for children, but how about screen time rules for parents?  Every day I see instances where my families have their devices situated between themselves and real life experiences in front of them.  They are busy texting as they walk into the office. They ask me to “hold on” while they take a more important call. Occasionally, they even Google a diagnosis or medication while we are discussing it in the exam room.

It is not just children that are glued to their devices. Parents seem equally unable to disconnect.  The image of a family walking through the park talking to each other and taking in the scenery has been replaced by a baby in the stroller tapping away at his iPad, a parent bent over a phone balanced on the handles, the other parent walking beside them chatting away on a Bluetooth. 

Our children learn to communicate by watching and imitating their parents.  It is heartbreaking to see a family out for dinner, what should be a shared family experience, and instead, everyone is intently interacting with their own personal device. This is a missed opportunity both for shared family time but also to teach and model appropriate social interactions for a child. Conversations are difficult enough without being distracted by a smartphone and interrupted by devices beeping, ringing and vibrating. 

Children first learn the rules of polite social interactions from their parents, but even older children and teens need these behaviors reinforced. Unfortunately, it seems that for many parents having a quiet child at a restaurant is the goal and if that is more easily achieved by handing him a smartphone or an iPad many parents see that as a “win.”

But, these same parents are surprised and frustrated when their children don’t know how to sit quietly in the pediatrician’s office while their parents try to have a conversation with their doctor. Or, they don’t know how to look a person in the eye when they are asked a question.  Yet, is it really surprising? How should these children know how to interact if those modeling behavior for them seem constantly distracted by a device and don’t look them in the eye when speaking.  Couple this with the fact that almost all of their opportunities to learn and practice social interaction have been eliminated or smoothed over by handing them a device?

I would argue that even on long car rides or tournaments, where these devices seem very handy, that it is in fact better to use these opportunities to engage each other in creative conversation or word games to pass the time -- together.

As a member of the older generation of pediatricians, I accept the positives of constant connectedness and the relationship building potential of social media.  I am getting used to it and enjoy connecting with more people than ever, even with cool emoticons.  But I see the need to encourage our younger generation of parents to slow down a little and use trusted ways of teaching communication and social development.  They should take the time to enjoy the spontaneity of childhood, dedicate time to fully participate in face-to-face discussions, turn off distractions when a task needs to be accomplished or an experience simply shared.  This can be a slow, sometimes painful process, but it needs to be prioritized in this fast paced, glamorous world of multi-media society.