Plugged in kids? Experts weigh in on the risks and benefits

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Adults spend hours staring at iPhones, iPads, laptops, and other electronic screens, but should toddlers and young children?

The Georgia Straight asked addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté, Waldorf educators Esther Chase and Jeff Onans, and Jason Nolan, an autistic games researcher and early-childhood studies professor at Ryerson University, to weigh in on the matter. What surfaced are some dramatically different schools of thought that might help parents make more informed decisions.

Here's what they said.

Dr. Gabor Mate
Physician and author
Children replace the nurturing adults in their lives with other kids. Technology now allows them to do that 24/7. Even when they’re not in each other’s physical presence, they’re using digital media to connect with each other—which means now they’re connecting much more with immature creatures than mature ones, which is a disaster for their development. Not to mention that screen time has negative effects on brain development, substitutes for genuine activity, and it’s addictive.

You don’t let a kid drive a car until you feel they’re mature enough to handle it without causing themselves or anyone else damage. You don’t let people drink before they’re ready. So why give people a potentially addictive outlet like this when they’re not ready to handle it? Why give kids access to something that’s going to damage their development?

A child under the age of eight does not need access to digital media. They need access to books and people, to play outdoors.…I don’t want to be arbitrary about it, but look at sex for example. Sex is good, but it’s not for children.

Esther Chase
Early childhood educator at Vancouver Waldorf School
When children are texting or using their little games and things, what they’re not doing is free play—and we’re big advocates of this area of early childhood development. 

In free play, they’re taking initiative, using their imaginations, focusing, and thinking, and these abilities are really being wanted in the work force. You want people when they’re adults to think creatively, think outside the box, take initiative, plan, control their impulses, take leadership, and work as part of a team. [Later in life] this falls under “executive function”, and what they’re finding is that all of these qualities are really developed in free play. And that’s the kind of play being compromised when children focus on a technological instrument.

Jeff Onans
Pedagogical administrator at Vancouver Waldorf School
There was a study where a trained athlete was put with a young child under three, and the task was to mimic everything the young child did. They were exhausted within 20 minutes. That’s the degree of [physical] activity that is going on.

The more screen time they spend, the less free time they spend moving freely around.…Waldorf education is committed to developing students who are able to use information technology as a tool and not be a slave to it. We’re not Luddites. We love media, we love creative media, but it’s developing the capacity for children to use it appropriately. It’s quite a paradox: to get them to be creative with information technology and other media in their adult lives, we hold them back from it so they can develop the necessary intelligence to use it in their later lives.…ideally when they’re teenagers, usually about 14.

But the less you plug in the child, the more they do find something to do and then the more able they are to play on their own.

Jason Nolan
Director of Experiential Design and Gaming Environments Lab
More emergent views of early childhood suggest that we start with the specific abilities and interests of individual children rather than generic age or developmental milestones that do not take gender, culture, or other diversities into account. How children actually engage with technology, rather than how we believe they ought to, is at issue. Arbitrary rules for children’s use of technology represent an abdication of responsibility on the part of adults to understand how technology can support a child in active exploration of themselves and the world around them.

Much of the moral panic about technology effects and risks such as addiction, inactivity, and so on is generated by mainstream media with little scholarly support.…Mobile devices are the ideal tools for children to document outdoor experiences, create music and images, share their experiences with others. They also keep children connected with friends and family.

Mobile devices can be a lifeline for a nonverbal child who struggles to communicate or has different ways of engaging with the world. For autistic children in particular, apps can help prepare a child mentally for new situations and challenges using content that the child finds engaging, familiar, or calming. What children enjoy and what we think they ought to enjoy are often two different things.

As an autistic adult, I cannot thank technology enough for giving me the tools I needed to engage with the world. I think technology, particularly mobile technology, would have made it much easier for me to engage in social activity at my own pace and develop my understanding of social norms with less stress and disruption than having them forced on me at times when I was mentally unprepared. All persons need the chance to communicate and share their thoughts and ideas in ways that feel most comfortable to them.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Bernadett Askey mother of 3 and 6 year olds
RE Dr. Gabor Mate:
You want to keep your kids away from peers, and their homes, because they have games, and they play them for hours on end. If you are the "against parent",you may push your kid towards the games even more especially if they have not been established as the main connection and "advisor" for your child, who is fully accepted by your child. ( after Gordon Neufeld). Media may become a wedge between parents and peers. However many parents are into games, and for those kids and families, it is normal to not to have one on alone time for a few hours a day exploring activities together.
You limit the time when exploration, creation, when connection can happen between kids and parents.
RE: Esther Chase
Kids need to learn to program is a great idea Learning to be a musician, a programmer, or producer of creative things is great, but face booking and communicating over the social media is not valuable at age 5, and should not help kids with social skills. Kids who learn behaviour, feelings, intentions through media,video games, and TV will lack the the physical experience and ques, that they would gain by exercising and building their neural connections. They may just end up mimicking behaviour, they may get confused by by their own feelings, or may misinterpret the comments, and behaviours of others. It is important to be able to set up options in life, rather than click on options. It could be fatal for generations who may me unable to come up with a solution to loosing a job, or a relationship.
RE: Jeff Onans
But this is like withdrawal, parents would have to actively participate in switching kids off. It is an addiction, and remember the parent is the one who is setting the example, who brought the game, and the TV into the house. Parents should monitor their own time on devices. Some parents are struggling with reality. They live for escaping reality, and games are a way to escape. Some game addicted parents likely the symptom of a deeply routed problem from their past, that may set them up for for escapism. It is our jobs as parents to teach kids how to overcome difficulties in life.
RE:Jason Nolan
Our job is to give the opportunity for our kids to realize that things don't turn out the way we imagined.Without expectations of face to face interaction we cut them off from developing neural connections in their brains.
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Hokano Redactor
When you write like this: "Kids need to learn to program is a great idea Learning to be a musician, a programmer, or producer of creative things is great, but face booking and communicating over the social media is not valuable at age 5, and should not help kids with social skills", you're forcing your reader to decipher your meaning. Commenters need to learn to use proper grammar, punctuation and spelling in order to express themselves effectively.
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