In an article in the January 22, 2018, issue of The Wall Street Journal by technology columnist Christopher Mims entitled “Not All Screen Time Is Equal”, Mr. Mims suggests that it is time to stop worrying about limiting screen time and time to switch our focus to what children are doing on their screens. Activities should be educational, not play. But play is not bad. Play with other children is the best way for them to learn many of the most important things. There is a photo at the top of the article of a less-than-two-year-old-boy leaning over, inches away from a screen that is illuminating his face. What is it that this child can learn best from a tablet? This article would have been better if it was co-authored with a columnist whose specialty is child development. One of the most common errors made in making decisions and recommendations occurs when information is missing, and its absence is not recognized.
Mr. Mims states, “Extraordinary learning is what happens when children’s interests turn to passion.” Putting aside concerns about the addictive nature of electronics, especially for very young children, and putting aside visual concerns, which are not trivial, what should children be learning and what is the best way? While you are reading my list, I am sure that you will think of things that I have missed.
Children need to learn who they are and who they are becoming. They need to move to learn about their bodies and to learn about space, develop strength and coordination, take risks (rolling over is an early one), and discover their limits. They need to go outside and get dirty to nurture their immune systems. They need to develop language which emerges through communication with family members. They need to learn how the world works; what they can control and what they cannot. They need to start to understand uncertainty and how that can affect them and that the rules of life are not always like the rules of a computer program.
They need to develop character. This includes respect, manners, responsibility, organization, honesty, empathy, helpfulness, impulse control, working together, deciding what to play and what the rules will be, doing what you want to do sometimes and learning to enjoy doing what others want to do at other times, patience, taking turns, pretending with others, hygiene, and reading how others feel. They need to learn how to manage their emotions. They need to learn that they are important, but that they are not the center of the world. They also need to learn how to attend. Being fixed on a screen which was designed to be addictive (remember, this is a business), is not teaching the attentional skills needed in a classroom. The Distraction Addiction Children also need to learn to say and mean, “please”, “thank you”, and “may I?” And learning these skills needs to be supported by role models.
The primary purpose of a brain is to plan, direct, and monitor movement. Movement through space enables us to develop problem-solving abilities as it provides feedback and consequences that matter; climbing, hopping, skipping, going up-and-down stairs, jumping, building towers of blocks, rolling to develop our vestibular systems, scribbling, cutting, pumping a swing, running downhill, riding a tricycle and then a bicycle, hanging on monkey bars, throwing and catching, lifting heavy objects, getting into small spaces, washing hands, and tying laces. Many of the children who are receiving occupational therapy and physical therapy and many who are overweight, would not have these problems if they had played as generations of children have played.
Opportunity cost is often overlooked, but what would children be doing without electronics? When the television and Mario Brothers went off, our children found things to do. There seems to be a fear of children being bored. Being bored or doing mindless tasks is an opportunity for minds to wander. If we are always engaged, we don’t have time to think about anything other than the present. For example, digesting this article did not stop when I read the last word. As I was vacuuming, some of the statements and the photo kept running through my mind and meshed with other things that I have read and observed. When and where do you do your best thinking and problem solving?
The challenge with electronics is to take advantage of what it can do for us and not have it control our lives. The statistics about the use of electronics and depression, anxiety, and suicide are sobering and this, too, needs to be kept in mind.