OPINION: The conversation around children and media may be too narrow

In recent weeks, there has been heightened concern in the news about the effects of media use on children’s well-being. Two large investors of technology company Apple wrote an open letter stating their concern that children’s overuse of smartphones may be harmful to their developing brains. Dozens of pediatric and mental health experts took to Facebook asking that they get rid of Messenger Kids, a social media messaging service for children as young as age 6. Concerns from parents, teachers and health practitioners about children’s use of media aren’t new, but recently there has been a call for tech leaders to be held more responsible for the products they create.

This call to action is certainly warranted, as a conversation between developmental experts and technology companies is necessary to create a healthy place for media in children’s lives. But during this time of uncertainty, it’s also important to consider various historical factors that contribute to the concern around children’s use of media, as well as the influence of our own relationship with media.

Historically, society has always been concerned about the influence of new technology on children.

In the 1940s, adults expressed concern about the effect of listening to radio on children’s emotional development. In the 1950s, adults were worried that watching television would make children go blind or expose them to too much violence.

With new technology, history follows a pattern: Each new technology brings about new concerns, which are then followed by an increase in research investigating the technology’s effect on children. As we learn how to safely adapt the technology into children’s lives, the uproar and subsequent research wanes — sometimes just in time before the next technology arrives.

The presence of this pattern doesn’t negate societal concerns. Rather, this pattern signifies that, in many ways, the worry around the tablets or smartphones is no different than the worry surrounding, say, TV in 1950s. The same will likely come once future technology becomes mainstream. For instance, once virtual reality devices are released for widespread use, there will likely be a similar concern about their impact on healthy child development. Adults’ concerns and reactions are necessary to decide how and if these technologies are going to become a part of children’s lives.

We can worry about children, but adults’ use of mobile devices is also problematic.

Most parents and caregivers know the importance of being a positive role model for their children. Children are adept at modeling adult behavior, and children learn from observing their parents, like what role each parent plays in the home. As much as parents might think that restricting children’s use of devices will fully protect them from potentially harmful effects, parents are also teaching children what appropriate media behavior looks like through their own use. For example, a parent may not let their child play with touchscreen devices, but if they themselves are using their device at the dinner table or while interacting with the child, the child may implicitly learn that these are appropriate ways to use technology. As much as it is important to start the conversation around children’s use of technology, we also need to consider our own use and how it may influence our children’s relationship with technology.

Consider the role of media in your own child’s life.

Amid the general conversation about media and children’s well-being, it’s also important for parents to consider the role of media in their own child’s life. There are certainly individual differences in technology use, as well as in the extent to which people develop habit-forming behaviors toward media. For example, two children may use social media the same amount of time, but one child may be replacing social interactions with social media while the other has maintained their real-world relationships and activities. Healthy media use may not look the same for every child, so it’s important to consider whether your own child’s behavior and happiness has changed negatively, or positively, due to media use.

When considering the role of media in children’s lives, it’s important to consider the historical, parental and individual factors that influence children’s development. As we work as a society toward figuring out how new technology fits into children’s lives, we can work specifically on creating healthy media habits for ourselves and for the children in our lives.


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