There is no arguing that parents today face considerable challenges. From safety in schools to bullying, lack of connection, and lack of empathy among kids. However, there remains one large problem that has crept in rather ominously.
“There are so many forces pushing us to give our kids technology, including the technology companies themselves, our schools, our friends, and the culture at large. It’s all happening so fast. One day we are wondering about whether an hour of Sesame Street is a good habit for a two year old and the next minute it seems we have adolescents who won’t look up from their phone for long enough to have a conversation with us” writes Naomi Schaefer Riley.
In her new book, Be The Parent Please: Strategies for Solving the REAL Parenting Problems, Riley explores what might be one of the most overlooked, and potentially insidious problems parents’ face today – screen time.
“A 2015 survey commissioned by Common Sense Media found that tweens (ages eight to twelve) are spending five hours and twelve minutes per day consuming digital media (not including listening to music and using screens at school or for homework). Teens (ages thirteen to eighteen) meanwhile, are spending eight hours and twenty minutes on digital media each day,” writes Riley.
While specialists see the trend shifting upward, parents feel it spiraling out of control. Riley quotes Jenny Pedeski, a pediatrician specializing in child development who recently ran a focus group to see how parents were using technology with their kids:
“The parents treated this as a support group instead. They thought it was so good to talk to other parents about this. They would say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to deal with this,’” Pedeski said.
Yet the problem also works both ways. Riley points to the work of Jenny Radesky, who, after studying the interaction of parents and children in fast-food restaurants, found that when parents were on their phones more often they were not only more distracted and less likely to interact with their children, they were also more likely to be short-tempered.
Compared to years past, parents are investing more into their children — but perhaps in ways that don’t lead to desired returns. Riley notes the work of Jennifer Senior, the author of All Joy and No Fun, who describes the state of parenting today:
“Today parents pour more capital – both emotional and literal – into their children than ever before, and their spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the vast majority of women still stayed home,” writes Senior.
On the other hand, children today are not expected to contribute economically.
“The twentieth century marked the first time in human history that having children didn’t increase your economic standing,” writes Riley.
Children today have become the receptacles of parents hopes and dreams.
“Perhaps without noticing, our parenting strategies evolved to be more geared toward ensuring that our children are never bored, uncomfortable, or at the slightest disadvantage when compared with their peers. By other measures, though, we are failing to prepare them for life as independent adults,” writes Riley.
What has occurred is a dramatic increase in attentional disorders, or what Dimitri A. Christakis of Seattle Children’s Hospital calls an “epidemic” of ADHD. He notes that an increase of one standard deviation in the number of hours of television watched at age one “is associated with a 28 percent increase in the probability of having attentional problems at age 7.”
Even in the case of educational software designed to increase readiness for school or enhance learning, there are unintended negative consequences.
“While it may seem as though our children can gain more academic skills through educational software, it is also possible that these touchscreen and button-pushing activities are inhibiting them socially and intellectually,” writes Riley.
Cell phones can also be misinterpreted by parents as necessary safety nets for their children. Riley notes the experience of one mother whose child feel asleep on the school bus with his cell phone battery dead. It wasn’t his cell phone, but the response of another concerned mother that saved him.
Riley also points to the question posed by Christine Rosen, who writes about technology and culture for the New Atlantis: “Shouldn’t we try to preserve some spaces at school for the cultivation of other valuable skills, such as face-to-face communication and socializing?”
One skill that is largely getting missed according to Riley is the ability to tolerate boredom. Children need to be constantly stimulated and the result is not just an inability to cope with distress, but a lack of creativity and imagination.
Technology is also not the economic equalizer that it is often argued to be by politicians and educators.
“What is more likely is that too much access to technology is actually exacerbating the inequality that already exists,” writes Riley.
Instead of simply removing or limiting technology, however, what parents should be doing is spending time with their children outside, exploring the natural world and engaging in human interaction. Kids learn better and become better adjusted through human interaction.
Drawing on the work of numerous research studies, Riley makes a compelling argument for rethinking our children’s relationship with screens – but perhaps more importantly, rethinking our relationship with our children.
Be The Parent Please: Strategies for Solving the REAL Parenting Problems
Naomi Schaefer Riley
Softcover, 223 Pages