As they grew older they would repeat the words back to me, and in this way they learned about their environment and steadily improved their language skills. However, as I passed by this modern mum, I noticed that her head was firmly to one side — as she walked, she was talking into a mobile phone balanced on her shoulder, while her toddler sat silently, staring straight ahead. It’s a thing you see many young parents doing today — either they’re on their phones themselves while in the company of small babies or toddlers, or they’re handing the devices to the children to keep them quiet.
Children need warm, positive attention from their parents — it’s that simple. That’s the way they feel loved and that’s how they learn the crucial social skills of making eye contact and interacting positively with others.
About a year ago I interviewed some play therapists for an article I was writing about the impact of tech on Irish families. Up to the time I worked on that assignment I had no idea that such a thing as a play therapist existed. But apparently they do, and apparently they are booked out to the rafters. Why? Because of the increasing and myriad problems being encountered by young children in terms of loneliness, language development and the issues being encountered by older children in terms of issues like cyber bullying or struggling with appallingly poor social skills.
So let’s start with loneliness. Yes. Loneliness. It seems that in many young families now, virtually everyone spends much of their leisure time on tech devices of one kind or another. Which leaves precious little time for chilling with, playing with or talking to toddlers and very young children.
In the past, if parents were busy, older siblings would look after the younger ones; they would play with them, and talk with them. These days it seems, many parents are virtually always busy with work and domestic duties, and keeping up to date with their social media swallows up much of the spare time they may happen to have. Meanwhile older siblings are also too busy engaging with their screens to bother with the smallies. So yes, loneliness was one of the problems that the therapists highlighted.
Another one was that, increasingly, parents these days don’t take the time to soothe and comfort an upset child. They’re more likely to thrust a tech device into their little hands, which means the child is not properly and warmly comforted by physical interaction and gentle calming words. Children must learn how to calm themselves, and this is how they learn. Does a device achieve this? It does not. In fact, handing them a tech device precludes this learning altogether. So they’re missing out both on the calming, comforting and bonding aspect of parenting and also on learning how to properly calm themselves. But that’s only the start.
There is also evidence suggesting that children who spend a lot of time in front of a screen in early childhood — a smartphone, tablet, computer or even a television — are more likely to sleep less and have sleep issues and be overweight or obese. While this is certainly worrying here’s where it starts to get really scary — according to the research, young children who spend a lot of time watching television or videos, are more likely to have poorer language skills and poorer cognitive skills — for example, a shorter attention span, which affects their ability to learn. There’s now evidence suggesting that even having a TV on in the background can have a negative impact on a child’s development.
Currently the thinking is that children under the age of 18 months should not spend any time at all in front of a screen, except for photographs or video calls, and that children aged 18-24 months should spend as little time as possible in front of one. Children aged between two and five should spend no more than an hour a day — and, girls and boys, be warned. This is the maximum.
Yes, it can be tempting to allow children have some screen time when you’re busy. But pause for a second — why not give a young child a toy to play with, or encourage him or her to engage in an activity of some kind, such as colouring or building a house out of blocks? You could also involve the child in helping out with whatever it is that you are doing — such as cooking a meal, for example. And — this is something that I’m really for myself — make mealtimes screen-free zones! The experts also recommend that parents not allow screens in children’s bedrooms — and this includes TV.
Last but not least of course, one should always remember that young children model their behaviour on what they see other people doing. So if they see you spending a lot of time on your smartphone, that’s what they’ll want to do as well. And don’t fall into the trap of justifying their screen-time by telling yourself that they’re on an “educational app” — despite the fact that there are many apps out there that are educational, there’s apparently, very little evidence to back up these claims.
And as your child gets older, remember that you want to raise a decent human being. For God’s sake, teach them to respect other children and to treat them well — both online and in real life.