… Like Moths to a Light
● By Sandy Kauten
If you show a glowing screen to a child, they are instantly captivated and will immediately want to engage with it. If the device is a TV, they want to watch it. If it’s a tablet or smartphone, they want to interact with it. Oh, and if your child is a toddler, you might find finger prints on your TV screen after little fingers have attempted to swipe or finger-tap it!
Society is guiding our children mindlessly towards technology at an alarming rate, without taking a step back to examine the potential impact this could have. For many, technology flooding starts very early in life, and is hard to escape as we become increasingly dependent on technology for even the simplest of tasks (like turning on a light or adjusting a thermostat). For some kids, it starts as early as a few months old – when they receive their first stuffed or plastic toy phone... often with little consideration to the associations they will make with the toy. The toy phone is designed specifically for them, with bright colors and familiar characters. (What? Your child didn’t have a Sesame Street branded toy phone?) They can hug it, cuddle it, “talk” on it and take it wherever they go! And then there’s - what to do with the no longer needed iPhone? Perhaps we shove it in a rattle, like one made by Fisher-Price? Doesn’t every toddler need to bite, nibble, and drool all over our old iPhone while they are being encouraged to play with the companion app? For the toddler set, they likely already have a pretend (“learning”) laptop in their toy box - Mommy and Daddy have a laptop, so why shouldn’t the newest addition to the family? By the way, there are “stuffed” laptops too (for the infants).
Children innately watch everything - like a hawk! They are engrossed by everything their parents and people around them do, and are (as the saying goes) “little sponges”. They take it ALL in! Just like grownups - they want to play on an iPad or Android tablet too – and are often invited to do so by their parents. So for their next birthday, they just might receive a new fun-sized LeapFrog or V-tech feature-rich tablet. Nowadays these entertainment devices are very interactive, which makes the attraction (but not yet “addiction”) even stronger! They come preloaded with apps, cameras that record video and take still shots, and can also communicate with other user’s tablets and phones.
Soon it is potty training time! Some parents equip their little ones with an iPotty so the family iPad doesn’t get accidentally dropped while they are leaning to use a toilet. This seemed like a crazy concept to me - until I saw a post online with a picture of a child sitting on a toilet, being potty-trained, holding a smartphone. Really??!
As parents, we may not be the best at researching all the toys our kids want for birthday or holidays… because maybe the list is too long, or we are simply too busy trying to balance work and home life. Research is time consuming, confusing and cumbersome. And, did you know that almost every toy sold today has some sort of online component that accompanies it? That said - of all the toys out there, the number one “wished for” gift by kids this past holiday season was a tablet. Not a toy tablet, but a full-featured, grownup iPad or Android tablet. This should not be a surprising… How many times have you been to a restaurant and witnessed children (and/or parents) either playing with or using a smart phone or tablet? In many families, technology is interfering with physical human interaction, which again, comes with huge consequences for our children.
As a society, we are sending the message to children that technology is to be incorporated into every aspect of their lives, even while sleeping! I strongly disagree with this practice, for many reasons. Kids these days are allowed to snuggle into bed with a tablet or cell phone – which again, comes with consequences, and also cannot be monitored. (Watch for our September feature on “Kids Sleeping with Cell Phones”) Every time I speak to middle school students during a cyber-ethics assembly I always ask… “How many of you sleep with your devices?” The show of hands shocks teachers and administrators. As a society, we are unwittingly grooming our children to be addicted and constantly connected to their devices!
While connected devices provide access to amazing resources and opportunities, they can also expose our children to inappropriate material before their brains are developed enough to make sense of what they are seeing, hearing, or reading. An example of this is - pornography. All it takes is for a child (or adult) to Google the word “sex” or “porn” - and they will be presented with a plethora of (free) hardcore pornography images, both videos and pictures. No payment or registration required – just seek and you will find! And while sex is a normal part of adult lives, when children are exposed to hardcore pornography at young ages, they do not understand what they are watching.
One of the inherent dangers of this flooding of stimuli to our kid’s (and adult) brains is that they are wired to reward behaviors that benefit us, as humans. The feelings of happiness, arousal, joy, satisfaction, and others are the brain’s way of rewarding us for specific activity or interaction. In turn, we do that activity again… and again…. and again! While this reward mechanism is great for adults, to ensure survival of our species, it has a deeper, more devastating effect on children. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. This chemical, when released in the brains of children is four times stronger than that of an adult brain. The constant flooding of chemicals, as a result of what the children are watching, playing, or doing thereby fuels childhood (and adult) addictions.
However, all hope is not lost. First, you must have clear understanding of what the toys and technology your kids are using provide. Is it self-contained, or does he have access to the web? Even a product marketed as an e-reader may have full web browsing capability; as do many of gaming devices and cell phones.
Second, you need to have conversations with your children about what they enjoy doing with their technology. Ask questions related to their technology use - find out who they interact with online and make sure you know why and how they are doing it. Are they gaming with strangers?... yet another danger as predators are known to stalk kids online.
Third, get yourself ready for the sex talk earlier than you probably expected. It is important that they hear the ins and out of love and sex from their parent/s… Don’t wait for them to be exposed to explicit pornography or have someone else (improperly) explain it to them.
Finally, keep a running dialogue and open communication within your family. Technology is powerful, and must be monitored and managed – both in time, and usage. As the saying goes – too much of anything can be toxic. Don’t let your children be misguided by others, and provide them with the knowledge they need to be empowered.
Ben Halpert is President of Savvy Cyber Kids, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization he founded to provide cyber awareness resources for parents and teachers for children starting at 3 years old. Ben has written and continues to expand The Savvy Cyber Kids at Home series of books that include The Family Gets a Computer, The Defeat of the Cyber Bully, and Adventures Beyond the Screen. Ben has the most fun when he is invited to schools to educate students, teachers, and parents on how to bring cyber ethics to all aspects of our digital lives. You can download the free Home Technology Rules and other resources at www.savvycyberkids.org