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We need to start talking about digital overload for our children Add to ...

Out at a restaurant the other night, it happened again. I sat with two young parents who tugged an iPad out of their diaper bag and placed it before their fussing toddler. Angry Birds = Happy Child. Pouring some more wine, I silently disapproved, as only the child-free could. These days, I see parents pass their babies cellphones more often than soothers. I get that it’s easy, but it’s also dangerous.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under 2 should be sheltered from all screens. I know no parents who enforce this. Once children are 4, the AAP recommends that recreational screen time be limited to one or two hours a day. I heard this first from Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University who’s a leading authority on the effects of media on the brains of the young. I was taken aback by the number: “One or two hours?” I asked. “Does anybody meet that standard?”

“Well, no,” he told me. “Probably not.”

If we have acknowledged that a superabundance of sugars and fats means we need to engineer healthy diets for our children, then why is it so hard to acknowledge that a superabundance of digital distractions requires that we engineer a healthy media diet, too? The average teenager, according to Nielson, now sends and receives 4,000 text messages every month. This is a glut. We need to start talking about digital obesity.

The consequences of our collective failure are already apparent, says Prof. Gentile. “Babies who watch television in particular end up more likely to have attention-deficit problems when they reach school age. It’s pretty obvious: If you spend time with a flickering, flashing thing, it may leave the brain expecting that kind of stimulation.”

But we know all this already, somehow, don’t we? For example, we’ve known for years that the more we read online, the shallower our reading becomes. Do we really need to wait for more studies to tell us that this behaviour leads to impoverished social and intellectual abilities?

There’s something else, though. This digital glut is depriving children of a vital part of life: absence. We need daydreaming and solitude – both products of absence – in order to arrive at truly original thinking. The British psychiatrist Anthony Storr chronicles in his book Solitude how true creativity can prosper only when we are given the gift of aloneness. Susan Cain, in researching her excellent book Quiet, implores us to help children develop a taste for solitude and empty spaces. Her research clearly outlines the way our taste for constant connectivity is preventing children and adults from reaching their creative potential.

If you were born before 1985, then you are one of the last people in history who remembers life without the Internet. You’re carrying around memories that future generations simply won’t be able to grasp. You will remember absence in a way your children won’t be able to – unless you engineer the experience for them. Yes, this means wrestling shiny things from their desperate grip.

What would it look like to engineer absence? I forced myself to take a full month away from the Internet and my mobile phone last year (My Analog August, I called it), and thus I can report that enforcing solitude pretty much puts a person through withdrawal symptoms. I was reminded of that when those dinner-mates I mentioned later took away their son’s iPad. They told him it was in the shop. He whined. He whined some more. And then, a week or so later, an amazing thing: He forgot about it. “He’s actually playing with his toys!” his mom told me. All this went down the crapper, naturally, when a playmate showed up with his own iPad. As when protecting any addict, vigilance is key.

It also helps to keep some perspective. I might lament that “kids these days” are being made into twitchy texters, but I keep in mind that my mother (an elementary school teacher) lamented Sesame Street. The point wasn’t whether Big Bird and the rest could teach kids valuable lessons; the point was that they were teaching us that education was a kind of entertainment. And, therefore, anything that wasn’t amusing wasn’t worth paying attention to.

We’ve had to be on guard to protect the media diet of our children for a long time now. But the stakes when we fail to do so are becoming higher. We now spend more time online than watching television (though we haven’t decreased our television time, either). All this means that the end of absence and solitude – the end of all those daydreaming silences we’re ruthlessly filling in – may be forgotten before we realize what their value was.

My alma mater, the University of British Columbia, is finally getting a Media Studies Department this September, and I think that kind of move is where we should place our energy. We need media studies not just in universities, though: We need it in high schools and even elementary schools. Our children don’t need help using the Internet (I think they have that covered) but they do desperately need our help in seeing themselves using it. Until we do that, we will be failing them.

I was there the day the glowing tablet returned to my friends’ kid. The child and I had been playing with toy animals on the stairs; he’d concocted elaborate names and back stories for our game. He’d shown me the doll he’d built out of pipe-cleaners and scraps of paper. And when the iPad re-emerged, naturally, he slumped over it in a sullen kind of passivity.

Mom took the thing away from him when his time was up. He cried, and we all cringed, and it was hard to say what was hurting him.

Michael Harris's new book, The End of Absence, will be in stores on Aug. 5.

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