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Do mobile devices stunt social-emotional skills?

By Janice Crompton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 9th, 2016

Documentary explores impact of screen time on student well-being

social-emotional screen time

As more of our lives are consumed with digital technology — social media, texting and smartphones — is it any wonder that our children are growing up with electronic gadgets as companions?

A report on media consumption by the nonprofit Common Sense Media said teens spend an average of nearly nine hours a day using screen media, and children between ages 8 and 12 consume an average of almost six hours a day.

And, ownership of smartphones — mobile devices with an internet connection — has tripled in recent years among young people. In 2011, 22 percent of students starting high school had a smartphone; by 2015, the number rocketed to 68 percent.

Parents and educators have found themselves wondering, are we raising a generation who won’t be able to look others in the eye when they speak? What is the impact of all of this new technology on child development — and what can parents do?

Those questions were the topic at a screening of a new documentary in the Deer Lakes School District.

The film, “Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age,” was made by parent and physician Delaney Ruston when she was confronted with the question of whether to purchase a smartphone for her 12-year-old daughter, Tessa.

“It all started with one question: What phone to get my daughter because her flip phone stopped working?” said Dr. Ruston, who has a practice in Setauket, N.Y. “I knew what Tessa wanted wasn’t a phone but a minicomputer — a smartphone. I was confused about what I should do.”

The film explores the impacts of the digital age on children through statistics and anecdotal evidence from doctors, researchers and educators, who see the effects firsthand. It also provides tips on how to help families find balance.

“All of us are addicted to our devices,” said Bobbi-Ann Barnes, assistant superintendent at Deer Lakes.

“We’re seeing the impact at a younger and younger age,” added David Campos, the district’s middle school principal.

The documentary was screened by students at the middle and high schools, along with members of the community and parents, who were invited to a public viewing Oct. 20.

After they watched the documentary, students returned to their homerooms for a 25-minute discussion. But, Mr. Campos said, the conversation could have gone on for hours.

Every Monday, some educators said, administrators spend a larger and larger portion of the morning hashing out arguments and bullying that transpired in cyberspace over the weekend.

“Before kids were plugged in, the weekend was a good thing. It gave them time to cool off,” high school principal Pat Baughman said. “Now, these kids never unplug.”

“It tends to escalate over the weekends,” Mr. Campos said.

Policies on the use of technology in the classroom vary by school districts across the nation.

Part of the documentary features students and teachers at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Wash., debating the use of technology in the classroom. During one discussion, a student lost track of what was going on when he became consumed by a video game on his smartphone.

When Dr. Ruston’s daughter was explaining why she should have a smartphone, her mother recalled that young Tessa also “zoned out” when she couldn’t resist checking a text.

That inability to stay on task didn’t surprise Mr. Campos. Every day he sees the impact on social development with his middle-schoolers.

“They don’t necessarily have some of the skills that we take for granted,” such as looking others in the eye when speaking, he said.

That’s because kids today don’t spend as much time practicing as previous generations, said clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair of Chestnut Hill, Mass., who authored the book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

“Children who are on a smartphone or iPad all the time aren’t developing the social and emotional intelligence tools we need in conversation,” Ms. Steiner-Adair said. “When you give a middle schooler a fully loaded computer, which is a smartphone, they disappear from face-to-face contact.”

“When you don’t practice learning how to be vulnerable face to face or to have conversations, then suddenly basic things like ordering coffee or pizza makes kids feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Parents also struggle with finding a balance between screen time and family time and deciding how young is too young for a device like a smartphone, Ms. Steiner-Adair said.

“A child in elementary school should not have a fully loaded computer with no filters,” she said of smartphones. “In middle school, it depends on your circumstances. If children need phones to be in contact with parents, there are all sorts of wonderful child-safe phones.”

Even experts in child development struggle with such decisions.

Mr. Baughman said his 10-year-old daughter has a cell phone.

“Maybe that makes me a bad parent,” he said. “I just think this is second nature to students.”

He looks at her Instagram account daily and monitors other internet activity, Mr. Baughman said.

“Kids can do a lot of damage on the internet,” he said. “I don’t think they realize the lasting impact that those things can have on them.”

Parents who let their children have smartphones should also require them to participate in a family contract, Ms. Steiner-Adair advised.

“The most important thing is to sit down and talk about every aspect and develop a responsible use agreement — what is it for and not for and consequences,” she said.

Devices should be shelved during mealtimes and family activities. And, parents should be sure to prohibit use of a device while their child is in transit, such as walking, biking or even using the bus, Ms. Steiner-Adair said.

“There has been a spike in preventable accidents” due to distraction, she noted.

Parents also need to be aware of how much they use technology and whether it interferes with family life.

“Parents are the role models for their kids in real life,” Ms. Steiner-Adair said.

Parents Jason and Jill Friess of West Deer agreed that finding the balance — even for themselves — is a challenge.  The couple attended the screening and said it was an eye-opener.

“We try to stay conscious of it,” said Mr. Friess, who works in the tech industry. “We look at ourselves.”

They said they encourage their 8- and 11-year-old daughters to play outdoors as much as possible. Their kids are also kept busy with dance and other activities.

Their 11-year-old doesn’t have a cell phone, but many of her friends do.

Their daughters use iPads, but ”they don’t have access to Facebook … and  they can message us,” Mr. Friess said.

Ms. Steiner-Adair said, as with any new challenge, parents have to trust they will find their way.

“It’s very hard to know how to navigate this whole digital age because none of us grew up with it,” she said.

For more information on “Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age” and a list of upcoming screenings: www.screenagersmovie.com.

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