I saw a guy in town waiting under the portico of a medical practice that specializes in lung disease, and damn if he wasn’t puffing away on a cigarette.
Most people suffering from smoking-related lung cancer probably wish they could go back, pack their bags and high-tail it out of Marlboro country. Their mantra may well be, If we only knew then what we know now.
Hold onto that thought, because we’re at the same critical juncture right now when it comes to the addiction of the 21st century: electronic screen time. Numerous studies are under way to try to determine whether screen time is harmful, and at what levels and at what age, and what might happen to a generation that spends many or most waking hours looking at TV, computers, tablets and phones.
Studies abound, but we don’t need science to tell us the truth we see in our lives. Children are suffering from an excess of electronics. We know, we see and we are complicit in the damage being done to their developing minds.
Last week the World Health Organization issued a report stating that babies under a year old should have no exposure to screens. The report added the warning that toddlers should not be allowed more than one hour per day of time in front of electronic screens. It is no longer cute to see 3-year-olds playing iPhone video games.
This is our cigarette warning, folks. Screens are dumbing down the population.
An entire generation of children has grown from infancy to their teen years consumed with screens. Many schools now have in-house computers for students to use instead of textbooks. Before school and after school, kids power on and connect to social media, gaming sites and you-name-it. Parents are complicit, because it takes so much energy and resolve to place limitations and then enforce them.
At home, TV is the nanny. In restaurants, you see what I see: little kids, barely old enough to sit up, with headphones and screens propped up in front of them. The seduction is that the kids seem content, and Mom and Dad are absolutely thrilled to be able to eat in peace.
But this is messed up, big time.
I know it’s really difficult to challenge cultural behavior. We are all too burdened, and short of time and energy. But by acceding to the screen-as-babysitter, we are creating children who are sedentary and at risk for obesity. Too many kids are exposed to unreasonable levels of violence and sexually inappropriate material before they have the emotional resources to understand and process such behavior. The many hours of passive watching supplant the desire to engage with other people, or play outside, or take up a sport.
This one is an easy call. It is parents’ responsibility to get their kids engaged in real life. As a community, we have to come together on acceptable screen time rules. We have to be willing to monitor. I’ve seen parents trying to pull an iPad away from a child in the midst of a “Fortnite” foray, and it’s like trying to take away a crack pipe.
Dare I suggest that we limit our own screen time? It is not acceptable to have phones at the dinner table. When I talk to some people, there are three of us in the room: my friend and I and whoever is on her phone. Last week my internet connection went down and I fell into something akin to grief until it was fixed. I don’t like that dependency; I used to read more in my quiet time, so I’m making new rules for myself, too.
We don’t get a dress rehearsal when it comes to raising children. Electronics overload is a relatively new problem, but our youngest and most vulnerable will suffer the consequences.
Staring at screens for hours leads to bad eating habits, too little exercise and too little human interaction. It’s almost as if an alien planet let loose screens in America as a way of undermining our society.
The studies roll along, but we know empirically that it’s time to drastically reduce screen time for kids. For those who need statistical proof, it will come.
If we only knew now what will we will know then.
P.S.: Please read Catherine Price’s April 24 column in The New York Times, “Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer.”
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.