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It’s Time To Admit That Screens Are Just Digital Pacifiers


At the grocery yesterday I observed an all-too-common scene: A four-year-old throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery cart and his mom solving it by handing the child a smartphone. The little boy settled down quickly as his chubby fingers scrolled along the screen.

Later that same day while I was waiting on my oldest children to come out of their sports practice, a different preschool-aged child approached me. “May I play games on your phone?” she asked me. A quick glance in the mother’s direction informed me that she was focused on her own phone. When I told the child I didn’t have any games on my phone, she threw herself down on the ground in a fit. When the mom finally responded, she offered a tablet from her purse. Problem solved.

I get how hard public temper-tantrums can be. My children have acted out in public. I’ve gotten dirty looks because I’m checking out at the grocery store as my tired toddler is screaming and flailing in the cart. But using my phone to mollify my child cannot be the solution. We have to be willing to do the hard work of training our children to behave. If they are not learning self-control as toddlers and preschoolers, how bad will it be when they have their own devices when they are older?

Let’s Face It: Our Kids Are Addicted

Actually, we already know how bad it is: 50 percent of teens feel addicted to their phones. Seventy-eight percent of teens check their devices at least hourly. They spend an average of more than six and a half hours a day using screen media, not including any use for school or homework. (How do they have time to even do homework?)

Younger children aren’t doing much better. Eight- to 12-year-olds are on their devices for four and a half hours daily, on average. We can’t argue that they’re busy learning to make videos or websites, because creation of some form only accounts for 3 percent of their usage.

By the time they get to college, 97 percent of students use their digital devices during class for non-class purposes. There you go, mom and dad. That’s what you’re paying for. Liberty University caught on that their students need help and created the nation’s first Center for Digital Wellness. The center encourages students to take weekend digital detox retreats without Internet access. If we could help our children get to college without an addiction to their devices, maybe this center wouldn’t need to exist.

We’ve chosen to just ignore American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent guidelines for technology use. They recommend that children under the age of 18 months have no exposure to technology outside of video chatting, children ages two to five spend no more than one hour in front of a screen daily, and children six and up spend no more than two hours.

It’s Not Just a Timesuck

If the amount of time young people are spending on their devices isn’t enough to convince you that this is a problem, there are other dangers too. What about the toll it is taking on real-life relationships? I’ve had young people as guests in my house who never stopped looking at their phones long enough to engage in conversation with the real people around them. Do our children have the opportunity to learn to think for themselves anymore?

What about the access to pornographic material? The average age now for exposure to pornography is about 11 years old. Children are having a hard time even making it to adolescence without a distorted view of sexuality.

What are the adults doing while the children are in front of a screen? Apparently using them even more. According to CNN, Nielson reported that adults are spending more than 10 hours per day on their devices. Don’t worry, though, parents of tweens and teens are only spending nine hours a day on screen media, and 78 percent of them believe they are good media role models for their children. I guess they use that extra hour for parenting.

We need to be honest about kids and their devices. They are addicted, and parents are to blame.

We’re lying to ourselves when we say mobile devices are for the children. They are for us. We’re too lazy, distracted, tired, or overwhelmed to raise our children. We feel uncomfortable when our young child throws a tantrum in public, so we hand him a device to distract him.

We don’t want a bad attitude from the middle schooler who says he’s the only one without a phone, so we cave saying he needs it. We don’t want to have to correct our teenager when at a restaurant, so we allow him to be focused on the screen the whole meal rather than talking with us. We are using devices as a pacifier for children of all ages.

We’re Lying to Ourselves About Our Compulsion

Devices have not been good for our children, at least not the way we’ve let our children use them. They don’t have a chance to be bored and invent some form of fun for themselves. They’re choosing to watch a screen instead of reading books, building forts out of couch cushions, playing outside, or talking with the elderly neighbors next door. We’re giving our children’s all too short childhood away to devices.

We’ve fooled ourselves into believing that devices are teaching our children better than time with us and age-old books and play. Let a toddler build her pre-literacy skills by reading a picture book with mom instead of playing an alphabet game on a device. Teach math skills naturally by having your elementary schooler double a batch of brownies as you bake together instead of playing a math game on the computer. Minecraft can wait for another time; have the children build a city with blocks and Legos. Social media does not promote healthy relationships as much as a teenager having some friends over for board-game night with his family.

Childhood should be defined by imaginative play and meaningful experiences. A young child is easily entertained with a stick and a patch of dirt if we’ll let him play there for a little while. Elementary-age children can play in a city made of empty boxes for a long time. Teenagers can enjoy productive contribution to the household alongside mom and begin to learn how to serve their community. Our children don’t need to have mobile devices to entertain them. Children for thousands of years have functioned well without access to any type of screen.

So Make a Plan, and Stick to It

A good family plan for digital media has several components. We need to have time restrictions. Children should have plenty of time for play and conversation with others without devices. They should have ample time to be outside and engaged in physical activity.

We should help our children learn that while devices can offer a lot, not everything is going to be beneficial to our minds. Some things are just not worth our time. Help your child choose the very best that is out there. We have to teach our children about protecting their privacy and the possible consequences to foolish posts or texts.

We also need to have filters that help prevent pornography consumption to protect our children as much as possible. While they are necessary, they aren’t fool-proof, so we also need to monitor our children’s use and have regular conversations about the dangers of pornography.

Technology is a part of our culture and it’s not going away. Children need to be prepared for healthy use when they leave the home by having a healthy experience while they are in the home. Let’s do something to introduce technology to our children without letting it be the dominating influence over their minds.