Children and technology

We have a fourteen month-old grandson who lives in Japan with his parents. Nearly every day we FaceTime or Skype with his parents and we get to see him over their various devices, usually a cell phone or a tablet computer on their end. We were able to travel to Japan to visit him and his parents during the first weeks of his life and he and his mother came to visit us when he was three months old, so for most of his life, we have been images on a screen to him. Chances are pretty good that he doesn’t remember our face-to-face meetings. Nonetheless we do have a significant relationship with him. He responds to our greetings. He plays a form of peek-a-boo with us. He chatters at us. He shows us his toys. He waves good buy and blows kisses. Of course a lot of his responses are responding to his mother or father’s encouragement. Still, he has a relationship with the faces on the screen of the device. We’ve noticed that he wants to hold the phone when his mother is talking with us. He’ll reach towards the iPad when they are using it.

He has no memory of a world before portable computers. Screens are pervasive in his world. Every adult he knows has a phone. He sees having phones as normal and usual. He even has a toy phone of his own with a light-up screen. He already knows which phone is his mothers, which is his fathers and which is the one he is allowed to play with. He also knows that remotes control the television and stereo in his home and he knows where his daddy keeps the remotes. He also knows that he is not supposed to pay with those remotes.

His parents and grandparents have read articles about the dangers to children of excessive time in front of screens. We know that screens are extremely addictive. They can shape children’s minds in ways that we are only beginning to understand. The news from researchers isn’t all bad. There are positive effects of screen time. In our case, we certainly feel a need to use the computers to bridge the distances between our homes. The home screen on my phone is a picture of our grandson. The screen saver on my computer is a series of slides of all of our grandchildren. I use screens eery day as a way of maintaining my relationship with our grandchildren.

Learning to use screens appropriately and knowing when and how to stop using them is a critical skill for parents. How they are used by and with children will have lasting effects on their lives.

Our nine-year-old grandson has access to a tablet computer for entertainment and education. His time in front of the screen is closely monitored and limited. His parents have made good use of parental controls to limit his access to some of the dangerous sites on the Internet. His two sisters, aged 6 and 3, also have some limited access to the computer and are allowed to watch a little bit of television. They also have a home filled with children’s books and all have reading time every day. They have had Charlie and the Chocolate factory, by Roald Dahl, read to them:

“So please, o please, we beg, we pray,
“Go throw your TV set away,
“And in its place you can install
“A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

One of the dangers of excessive screen time for children is that it comes at a cost of reduced physical activity. It has also been linked to decreased sleep in children as well as adults. On the other hand, there is solid research demonstrating that educational television can benefit children who are age two and older.

Part of the reality of screens in our lives is that they present partial information. Screens present information to our eyes and ears without engaging our other senses. We’re acutely aware of this when we visit with our grandchildren over the computer. We can’t touch them, nor they us, even when the younger ones try to touch us by touching the screen. We can’t smell them over the screen, thought we can imagine some smells, such as when the baby’s mother tells us she needs to change a diaper. We can hear the splash of water when a child is playing at a water table, but we don’t feel the sensation of wet skin over the computer. The same goes for our grandchildren. They can’t feel a grandparent’s hug on the screen. They only get part of a relationship with us through the media.

We are aware that we are extremely fortunate to have the technology that we do have and we love to watch our grandchildren on the screen. We love to read books to our grandchildren over the computer. We take great delight in the pictures that arrive by text message throughout the day to report on the activities of those grandchildren.

At the same time, we support their parents’ decision to limit screen time and to enable them to have as many experiences in the real world as possible.

The advent of the Covid pandemic has meant that a lot of children are increasing their screen time. Screens are used for distance learning and delivery of schools when face-to-face gatherings need to be restricted to prevent the spread of the virus. Children will be using screens much more in their schooling this year than ever before.

O God who has created us for relationship with you, we are grateful for the technologies that enable us to connect and have relationships over long distances. Help us to discern the appropriate uses of these technologies in the lives of the children in our world. May we be wise in our choices and careful in the use of screens. Help us to continue to seek experiences for all children of real world learning and relationships that help them to grow and learn and explore all of their senses. Bless us all in this ever-changing world. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!