Family Matters: Substituting people with screens

Too much: The problem arises when children replace face-to-face time with screen time.
Too much: The problem arises when children replace face-to-face time with screen time.

How much exposure to IT is okay and how much is problematic for young children? This question has been asked again and again and there are endless debates as people argue a range of different perspectives.

I am not sure we can answer definitively at this point. In this column, I’ll present some evidence shared with me by a colleague who recently returned from a conference where a speaker, Mari Swingle, presented her position. Mari Swingle is a practicing neuro-therapist and behaviour specialist and she argues in her new book that early introduction of digital media is changing the way infants’ brains develop. Let me try and explain her argument.

We know that developing secure and loving relationships with people (ideally family members) is absolutely crucial for healthy development. These relationships develop from the moment of birth. Loving relationships can provide the necessary buffer that protects children from environmental stress and this protection creates the foundation upon which healthy social, emotional and behavioural development grows.

I am saying that it is important for infants we demonstrate we are there for them, we are emotionally available.

Swingle argues that it is no longer uncommon for parents to provide their infant with a tablet or equivalent as a substitute for their attention. Babies are biologically primed to seek out the attention of other people; they look towards the human face from the moment of birth, and they orient towards the human voice. From a few hours old, they show us they would much rather gaze at a human face than any other visual signal. If we consistently provide them with a screen / IT device instead of this human face and voice operating in real time, then we are teaching them to value what they see on the screen ahead of interacting with a live human being.

The more infants are given technology as a substitute for human interaction, the more we are reinforcing this lesson, and the more likely we are shaping the behaviour of the future toddler, young child and teenager who will actively seek IT engagement ahead of human interaction. Swingle argues that this actually shapes the way the infants’ brain develops so that we are creating a child who gets more pleasure from interacting with a screen than interacting with another human being.

The key element of Swingle’s argument is about the substantive substitution of human interaction with IT interaction. I am not claiming that adults need to exclusively focus on infants to the exclusion of all else. In fact, such a focus is often called helicopter parenting as there are major concerns about the emotional development of children reared this way. 

However, I am saying that it is important for infants we demonstrate we are there for them, we are emotionally available. For example, in a restaurant, parents may well want to divert their toddler by providing a tablet to keep the child amused. However this can be supplemented by glances and smiles, making eye contact occasionally, and brief interactions all of which demonstrate that the child is part of the social group sitting around the table. Ideally, we want the child to feel happy being part of this group with the tablet simply a tool to help the child regulate behaviour so the wait for food does not become distressing and stressful.

Unfortunately, what happens too often is that children’s engagement with IT is taken as a signal that adult attention can be diverted elsewhere: how often have parents felt the child is quiet so don’t interfere! We need to engage with our children, we need to make sure that their most interesting learning comes from interacting with other humans, not from interacting with a screen or a device. We need to make sure our children’s brains are wired to get the best rewards from human contact.