Four-year-old Ian Rich and his 6-year-old brother, Jason, didn't watch TV (or use any screen media) until they were 2 1/2. After all, their father is Michael Rich, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. He knows that scientific evidence has shown that very young children don't benefit from screen time. However, now that the boys are older, Dr. Rich, a Parents advisor, is letting them test-drive his high-tech devices, and he's impressed by how quickly they master them. Recently, Ian figured out how to take pictures on his dad's iPhone—including some of his mom getting out of the shower.
"At least he hasn't figured out how to upload them to the Internet," says Dr. Rich. "Yet."
Yup, it's 2011, when most preschoolers don't know how to tie their shoelaces but they can understand—as if by osmosis—how to use the latest electronic gadget. Although we know that it's essential for our kids to be able to navigate the byways of our wired world in order to excel at school and beyond, it's hard not to be stunned by how technology seems to have taken over our lives.
A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that school-age kids spend an average of 7 1/2 hours a day in front of a television, a computer, a smartphone, or another digital device. That's one hour and 17 minutes more than they did when the last study was done five years ago. The fact that most devices are mobile gives kids access in places they never had it before: on the school bus, in the doctor's waiting room, or on a drive to Grandma's. Although the Kaiser study involved 8- to 18-year-olds, anyone who has more than one child knows that little brothers and sisters not only follow in their older siblings' footsteps, they're barely a baby step behind.
"My girls are 12 and 4, and I'm astonished at how much more technology Elena, the younger one, has been exposed to," says Stephanie Deininger, of Redlands, California. "She's learning to read from websites like PBSkids.org and knows how to use a laptop, a DS, and an MP3 player nearly as well as her sister does. We set time limits, but there's no question that technology is the big draw and sometimes getting Elena to turn it off can be a battle."
Even babies may log an average of two hours of screen time per day, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 have no screen time at all. Last fall, in fact, the AAP urged all pediatricians to start asking parents about their child's technology usage at every well visit. "Digital media are as much a part of kids' lives as the air they breathe," says Dr. Rich. Whether this is good or bad is a moot point now—the real challenge is figuring out how to help our children benefit from high-tech tools while still making sure that they are playing and learning in the tried-and-true ways.