Family in Focus

Hooked on smartphones

In wake of iPhone’s 10th anniversary, medical professionals discuss the cost of screen time

McHenry County Magazine

Lisa Messinger knows there are some instances in which a smartphone or tablet could simply be irreplaceable – even for kids.

But over the last 15 years, Messinger, a pediatrician now practicing with Centegra Physician Care in Crystal Lake, has enjoyed a front row seat, as the now ubiquitous mobile technology of the 21st Century has quickly become a staple of life for children and parents alike.

And most of the time, she says, parents and their young ones would benefit from a bit more caution and restraint.

“There will certainly be times when technology is our friend,” says Messinger. “But today’s kids, and teens especially, have just such a difficult time being away from their phones.”

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, hearkening back to a time not that distant – yet seemingly difficult to recall – when people weren’t connected virtually nonstop to the Internet and to each other through social media.

While this connectedness has seemingly had an undeniable impact on many spheres of life, researchers have only begun to take stock of its effects on perhaps the most vulnerable among us, our children.

For instance, in May, research presented at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco, indicated that the impact of wireless computing extends even down to infants and toddlers, as 20 percent of children as young as 18 months old were spending nearly 30 minutes a day on a handheld device – a measurement that doesn’t even touch the amounts of time children spend in front of a television or other kind of screen.

And the research further indicates such exposure to mobile devices can have real consequences, such as delaying development. Specifically, researchers noted for every 30 minutes a day a child spends on a handheld device, expressive speech development delays increased by as much as 50 percent.

“There is a push nowadays to get connected earlier and earlier,” says Israr Abbasi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital. “Children have a double whammy here. You will see young toddlers holding a smart device, even in a stroller, completely unaware of their surroundings – and their parents plugged in themselves.”

Abbasi says that for many children, this can have the further effect of blurring the lines between “online and offline life.”

“For young children who are vulnerable, it can be difficult to navigate,” Abbasi says. “And [it] can contribute to social and perceptual problems.”

Messinger agrees, noting such “screen time,” particularly in young children, can hamper a child’s ability to develop the social skills and adaptive abilities that, while the child grows, are keys to success.

“When looking at a young child’s brain, we’re seeing screen time taking the place of activities that we know grow brains differently,” Messinger says. “Screen time can’t be a substitute for things like reading with parents, conversations with parents, free play, playing games – things that will actually help kids.”

Further, Messinger notes that device use can interfere with children’s sleep, putting them at risk of a number of health problems. 

“Screen time should be over at least one hour before bed time,” she says. “But, even then, too much screen time can have a cumulative effect, which can still interfere with sleep.”

Messinger also notes that too much screen time can make kids sedentary, placing them at higher risk for obesity.

Both Abbasi and Messinger readily conceded that kids could benefit from some time interacting with tablets and other mobile computing devices.

“Technology has improved learning,” says Abbasi, adding that the information children can access online has placed many “on a fast track” to knowledge.

“They are more empowered and able to accomplish more in less time,” he says.

But the educational achievement gains have not been proven to be great enough to simply allow kids to plug in, and stay that way.

“There’s not much evidence [that] kids learn that much more from computer screens and phone apps – or at least as much as adults imagine they do,” Messinger says.

Rather, both Messinger and Abbasi suggest that parents and others charged with the health and welfare of children should take some measures to ensure their young ones interact with the devices properly, and in the proper doses.

To begin, they say, parents should restrict the age at which their kids get mobile devices of their own.

Abbasi suggests waiting until a child is at least age 12 before giving a smartphone to him or her, and that parents and guardians should limit smartphone access to children between the ages of 9 and 12.

“Definitely not to anyone younger than 9,” Abbasi says.

Even with such age restrictions, the doctors encourage parents to set age-appropriate boundaries on mobile device use for both young children and teens, alike. 

If not, Abbasi says, it can be “difficult to know if your child is in his room sleeping, or broadcasting to the world.”

Messinger suggests making sure devices can be charged only in common living spaces, so they are not taken into the bedrooms of your child or teenager. 

And she recommends setting times of the day during which tablet, video game and mobile device use is acceptable, and when it is not.

For instance, Messinger and Abbasi recommend eating meals as a family, with all phones and devices off – that includes parents.

“That goes over big every time I mention it,” Messinger says, with a laugh.

Parents can also consider creating a system under which mobile device use can be used as a reward for chores or other completed tasks or accomplishments.

Even on long car trips or airplane rides, Messinger says that parents should consider finding ways to limit screen time, to some degree. She, for instance, suggests that parents consider buying new toys, books, games and other “new and exciting” items specifically for a trip, to distract and minimize the desire for screen time.

Parents should always remember they are in control – or should be – and they have the authority and right to measure their children’s exposure and put restrictions in place – even over which social media platforms in which their children can participate, Abbasi says.

“Monitor, monitor, monitor,” he says. “Your children should, in fact, expect that [parents] will check their devices randomly. If you are paying for the device and the [data] plan, it is your absolute right to have access to everything on it.”

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