As the day of Christ’s birth hurtles towards us, it is definitely easy to get caught up in the spin of things. Retailers, desperate to meet their bottom line and land a huge haul this shopping season, barrage us with seemingly great offers on all kinds of interesting items. Some are actually great gifts, others are useless crap. In the preparation for the arrival of God incarnate, we also want to give our kids a nice Christmas; in gifts and also hopefully along the spiritual element of this momentous holiday. The big question is: what can we get them?
Pushing the purely secular, greedy version of Christmas aside, let’s take a look at all those fancy electronic gadgets that are screaming “Buy at this obnoxiously low price for only a limited time!” There are ipads, iphones, ipods, flat screen TVs on which you could land a small aircraft, laptops that double as nuclear reactors, and all those video games, with 10,000 hours of playing time! We have a whole digital universe oftentimes more realistic and exciting than the real one right at our fingertips. That’s gotta be pretty exciting for kids these days. I mean, how many of you with a five year old have discovered how adept they can become on a smartphone? It’s kinda scary. The real question that we parents need to be asking and educating ourselves on is, “How much screen time is good for my child(ren)?”
I was only born in 1981, but I can definitely see how much things have changed in the “digital landscape” since I was a kid. I was excited to get a Sega Genesis one year when I was in sixth grade. Now there is social media like Facebook, video games that cater to adults well into their thirties, the internet, and….you get the idea. There is so much digital media being thrown at our kids that it must make us wonder how much of it is good, and at what point does it become harmful to the social, spiritual, physical, and psychological development of our children? What age is appropriate to give a kid a laptop or an iphone? An ipod? A brand new video game system? 5? 7? 12?
As parents, we want the best for our kids. We have a responsibility given to us by God to nurture these little ones into healthy adults who can discern their vocations and serve God faithfully and truthfully. Yeah, that sounds good on paper, but seriously, when you’re home with several toddlers and you’re sick, the house is a disaster, the kids are all screaming and yelling and running rampant, sometimes you just say, “Here, you can watch a movie!” Every parent has done that. I know I’m guilty. That’s one thing, but when screen time consumes more and more of each day, how much is too much? If all the kids want to do is attach to the screen, even when they’re on a playdate, or can’t wait to get home from one just to get back on the screen, there may be an issue. According to the Mayo Clinic, letting young kids spend more than two hours with a screen can lead to obesity, behavior problems, and irregular sleep, to name a few. In my personal opinion, two hours a day seems like a bit much.
Childhood can be a magical time when things are new and exciting. Young children are naturally curious and want to learn about things. You should see my four year old son come up with one of his “projects” some time. Oh the clean up… When kids plop in front of a screen, it’s like they zone out and stop thinking. It’s like the imagination turns off. Sure there are some great educational programs out there, but when the medium is a screen, it may not always be best. (Just my opinion there) When that exciting natural curiosity of children is encouraged through reading and exploring, they can have a rich world of learning and physical exploration, like tromping through a meadow or doing arts and crafts. Staring at a screen for hours on end takes all of that away.
The jury seems to be out on the effect of violent media, such as video games and TV, but I think any parent can tell you that children like to imitate whatever it is they see, whether it’s on a screen or not. I know I have seen it in my own kids. My wife and I not only monitor the content of programs for violence and language, but we also check out the attitude of the people in the program. We’ve found some shows that are intended for kids to be pretty sassy, with the main characters hauling around quite a ‘tude towards adults and parents. Sound strict? That’s just what we do. I’ve seen my own kids mimic the attitudes of people they see on TV, so we can only imagine how 4 year old little Johnny is going to react to Terminator 2, or how 10 year old Timmy is going to act when he’s playing Call of Duty online with 36 year old men who are swearing like wannabe sailors. Maybe not too good…
Social media has taken a dominant place in the social lives of teenagers, as well as adults. Aside from the question of “Should 7 year old Sarah have a Facebook account”, how much social media is good for the social development of teenagers and at what point does it become harmful? Surely it’s a great way for fast communication and such, but the rise of cyber bullying, sexting, and the inability to form real relationships may cause one to wonder how much is too much? Then there’s this interesting piece from the Huffington Post that discusses how the texting and Facebooking ruins teen relationships by being “too connected.” It’s easy to sit behind a screen and go on a trolling binge in the com box of someone’s blog, but it’s much harder to have a civilized disagreement with someone face to face, or even over the telephone.
We are undoubtedly in the “digital age.” We, as parents, must find a way to navigate through it so that our children can still develop both neurologically and socially. Are we monitoring the use of screens so that it can be a simple leisure activity or are we allowing the screens to raise our kids? Please know that the point of this article isn’t to demonstrate my amazing knowledge of the topic at hand. I’m just trying to raise some questions and encourage parents to do some research into how all of these screens are affecting our children. I’m not saying that I have all the answers or that I am somehow better than any other parent out there. This stuff is tricky and we have to be ready to draw a line where needed. Let’s think about these things as we go about that last minute Christmas shopping.