The one-eyed babysitter

Odds are good that you have heard the term “one-eyed babysitter” applied to television and, specifically, the use of television to entertain and occupy children. The amount of time children spend watching television and, now, occupied in front of other screens–computers, tablets, cell phones, etc.–is another serious side effect of the decline of marriage-based, two-parent families and the number of two-parent families in which both parents work. In January 2015, The Atlantic reported on a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers in Australia that calculated the total amount of time children were spending in front of screens of all kinds, as opposed to previous studies which focused on television or computers alone.

According to the article, “the study would suggest that many students worldwide are probably using technology much more than the recommended two-hours maximum every day.” That figure has long been the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also recommends that children under three avoid screens completely. A March 2015 report on the BBC web site stated that children aged five to sixteen spend, on average, six and a half hours per day in front of screens, with teenage boys spending an average of eight hours per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ web site states, “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.” Therein lies the real problem.

Any internet-capable devise puts its user a matter of a few key strokes away from accessing just about anything–and that is both good and bad. The access that we enjoy to information today provides incredible benefit and convenience. Our lives have been transformed by the ability to push a button and find the answer to virtually any question. One could easily argue that that is not always a good thing. For example, the need to memorize anything has all but disappeared. Still, the advantages offered by technology cannot be discarded. Neither, however, can the disadvantages and risks.

In a December article in WORLD on sex trafficking, Opal Singleton, training and outreach coordinator for Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, was quoted making an important observation about the risks associated with our worldwide connectedness. “Never before has there been this much competition of influences on our kids’ morals, spirituality, self-image, and sexuality,” Singleton said. “We have perfectly normal parents handing their child devices that provide access to hundreds of thousands of strangers around the globe.” Internet chat rooms, social media sites and myriad other tools, apps and web sites that make communication to easy and convenient also make it, when unfiltered, unmonitored and carelessly used, dangerous. Singleton went on, in the same article, to describe a high school senior with a 4.0 GPA who had been confronted by her mother just days before she planned to fly to Ireland to meet a 28-year-old man she met playing an Xbox game. That is just one example among thousands that could be shared.

In December 2015, Tim Challies authored a blog post entitled “Please Don’t Give Them Porn for Christmas,” which he started this way: “This Christmas a lot of children will receive porn from under the tree. It not what they wanted, and not what their parents intended for them to have. But they will get it anyway.” What did Challies have in mind? “[G]iving your children computers, iPods, tablets—any of these devices—gives them access to the major gateway to pornography,” Challies wrote, after citing these statisics: “According to recent research, 52% of pornography is now viewed through mobile devices, and 1 in 5 searches from a mobile device is for porn. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 12. Nine out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls will be exposed to pornography before the age of 18. 71% of teens hide online behavior from their parents. 28% of 16-17 year olds have been unintentionally exposed to online pornography.”

When parents are absent or are too busy to spend time with their children, getting to know them, keeping an eye on how they use their time and what they do with their electronic devices, they are creating opportunities for children to seek the attention they are not receiving from their parents in very dangerous places. Parents who are too busy, too tired or simply not present cannot provide the supervision, the attention or the training essential to the development of discernment that children need. Parents need to remember that children are a gift from the Lord and with children comes great responsibility. Parents need to be wise as serpents when it comes to the devices they allow their children to have, the amount of time they allow the children to use them and the amount of supervision they will insist upon while they are being used. Technology is a wonderful thing and can be great fun. Never, though, will a parent forgive him- or herself if they flip and east response of “go watch the television” or “go play on your tablet” results in a child addicted to pornography or lured into sexual slavery. No one thinks that will happen to their child, but the risk is just not worth it.

Just a few more minutes!

The September 26 issue of USA Today included an opinion piece by Vicki Abeles entitled “Students Without a Childhood.” Abeles leads her piece by sharing that her middle-school-aged son Zak has trouble sleeping, often waking up in the middle of the night wondering whether or not he has finished everything on his to-do list. Interestingly, she then goes on to explain that Zak is, by design, “not the classically overscheduled child.” Zak’s only activities, Abeles says, are school, jazz band and homework. That would indicate that there may well be more to Zak’s troubles than the level of his activity, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Abeles uses Zak’s situation to segue into her assertion that the collective “we”–by which I assume she means parents, teachers, coaches and American culture in general–are causing harm to our children “by overpacking their schedules in the name of productivity, achievement and competition.” Let’s ignore for the moment that her son is not one of those children, because that is not the point I want to get at. Let’s instead examine some of the claims that Abeles makes about this “overpacking.”

First, she states that studies indicate that children in America “spend half as much time playing outdoors as they did in the 1980s.” I do not doubt that that is true, though Abeles does not cite any specific studies and I have not researched that myself. I do doubt, though, her implication that the decline in outdoor recreation is due to overpacking children’s schedules. In the 1980s very few children had access to a home computer and VCRs were just becoming common. Atari was the only gaming system for much of the decade, with Nintendo bursting onto the scene mid-decade along with the far-less-popular Sega. Extremely few people had cellular phones in the 1980s and those that did had to be strong enough to haul around the brick-like devices (that could do nothing but make and receive calls, of course). None of those cell phone users were children. So yes, children in the 1980s probably did spend twice as much time outside as they do now, but that’s because many of them are now spending their time inside, fastened to their cornucopia of digital entertainment devices.

Abeles then suggests that the “frantic pace of modern life has even trickled down to kindergarten, where students are already bringing home piles of homework.” According to on article in US News in February 2014, kindergarten through fifth grade teachers assign about 2.9 hours of homework per week. Given the range in grades included in that figure, though, it is impossible to say that kindergarten students are getting too much work. After all, the oft-cited rule of thumb that a reasonable among of homework for students is ten minutes per night per grade level would mean fifty minutes per week for 5-day kindergarteners and five hours per week for fifth graders. A January 2010 article from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, fifteen to twenty minutes per day for four days is appropriate for kindergarten students. That would mean up to an hour and twenty minutes per week. So I am not sure “piles of homework” are the norm for most American kindergarten students. There is also evidence that the amount of homework is not, on average, out of line for older students, either. According to “Changing Times of American Youth, 1981-2003,” by F. Thomas Juster, Hiromi Ono and Frank P. Stafford at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the average American child between ages 6 and 8 spent 2 hours and 33 minutes per week “studying” in 2002-03, while students ages 9-11 spent 3 hours 36 minutes. Assuming “studying” and “homework” are synonymous, the US News report would indicate that the amount of time spent on homework by elementary students is holding, if not declining, over the past ten years.

Immediately after her suggestion that the “frantic pace of modern life” has led to kindergarten students being inundated with “piles of homework” Abeles suggests that it is no wonder that “young people nationwide suffer from alarming rates of anxiety, sleep loss and depression.” No wonder, indeed…but not because their homework loads.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that teenagers spend an average of 7.5 hours per day consuming media which, according to the Washington Post, includes “watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games.” I would suggest that that figure has only gone up since 2010. Way back in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a three-page handout for parents entitled “Understanding the Impact of Media on Children and Teens.” Some of the side-effects of excessive media use that were warned about included poor school performance, frequent nightmares and increased eating of unhealthy foods. PEDIATRICS, a publican of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published online on March 28, 2011 a study under the title “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.” The study reported that “a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.” And while the study touted some benefits of this expanded digital familiarity, it also warned of dangers, including cyber bullying, sexting and “Facebook depression.” This is “defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression” and adolescents suffering from it “are at risk for social isolation.”

In November 2013 the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health warned, “Studies find that high levels of media use are associated with academic problems, problems with sleep, unhealthy eating, and more.” It also reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends that adolescents have less than two hours of screen time per day.” in November 2013, Rachel Ehmke, a senior writer for the Child Mind Institute, wrote “Teens and Social Media” in which she reported, “…experts worry that the social media and floods of text messages that have become so integral to teenage life are promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem in the young people who use them the most.” Ehmke also wrote, “When they’re not doing their homework (and when they are) they’re online and on their phones, texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it.” Maybe, just maybe, the fact that so many teens are “multitasking” while doing their homework has something to do with the amount of time it takes them to get their work done?

Abeles ends her column with a plea: “These many concerns drive me to ask my fellow parents, teachers and administrators to help me give Zak back the time he needs to learn, grow and interact. The crazy demands schools place on our children’s time need to be scaled back–for their long-term health and emotional balance as much as for the optimum development of our children’s minds and the meaning they find in life.” The problem, again, is that Abeles never really connects Zak’s struggles with anything that schools are doing. I do not know how much time Zak spends on digital media and I do not know if he has learning challenges that make school work difficult for him. What I do know is that Abeles’ headline asserts clearly that schools are at fault for the overscheduling and “crazy demands” that are stressing out “our kids.” Her column fails to prove her assertion, though–citing some studies as well as anecdotal evidence, but failing to demonstrate that schools are demanding anything that is harming students. Maybe there are some other culprits Abeles should consider, as well. In fact, maybe she should have done her homework, because I suspect she would find that, more often than not, students are giving their childhood away for “just a few more minutes” of digital connectivity.

“An environment welcoming all teens”

I would love to say that I have not blogged in nearly two weeks because there has simply been nothing so troubling as to warrant me taking to the keyboard to share my thoughts in the matter. As if! As the expression goes, “life happens,” and life for me the past couple of weeks has been extremely busy. But I am not going to talk about what’s going on in my life. I am not even (for now) going to talk about the government shut down. What I am going to talk about is the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This organization represents more than 60,000 pediatricians across the country. According to its own web site the AAP is “dedicated to the health and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults.” In late July the AAP posted on its web site a technical report entitled “Office-Based Care for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth,” written by Dr. David Levine of the Committee on Adolescence, and also published in the July issue of Pediatrics. The article provides recommendations for pediatricians on how to answer questions from youth with questions about their own sexuality or that of their parents, relatives and friends.

Specifically, the article states, “Pediatricians should have offices that are teen-friendly and welcoming to sexual minority youth. This includes having supportive, engaging office staff members who ensure that there are no barriers to care.” Notice what this says if you read between the lines: not having an environment that is welcoming to “sexual minority youth” and not having staff members who are supportive of such behavior is a barrier to care. Furthermore, the article states, “For transgender youth, pediatricians should provide the opportunity to acknowledge and affirm their feelings of gender dysphoria and desires to transition to the opposite gender.” In other words, pediatricians and their staffs need to ” express agreement with or commitment to” and “support” the desire for a young person to transition to the other gender. That is the definition of affirm. And remember, failing to take this supportive approach is a barrier to care!

The article further states that LGBTQ youth are most damaged by the heterosexism that is the “societal expectation.” One has to wonder where Dr. Levine and his colleagues live, though, because he also writes, “Pervasive in our culture, homophobia is institutionalized in stereotypes promoted in the media and in casual conversation.” Oh really? I think what is promoted in our media aggressively and, unfortunately, successfully, is the notion that homosexuality and other “alternative lifestyles” are quite acceptable and normal.

Levine writes, “Pediatricians have a role in helping teenagers sort through their feelings and behaviors. Young people need information about healthy, positive expressions of sexuality, and pediatricians should assist adolescents as they develop their identities and to avoid the consequences of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), regardless of sexual orientation. Research suggests that LGBTQ youth really value these opportunities for discussions with their pediatricians or primary health care providers.” I would agree with the doctor if this statement could be taken at face value. However, we must remember what he writes elsewhere in the article. Remember, according to Levine and the AAP, pediatricians and their staff members cannot help adolescents through the difficult teen years and the sexual questions that may emerge unless they affirm and embrace every version of sexual relationship–Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. They cannot help teens avoid sexually transmitted diseases unless they are willing to affirm that kind of behavior in any pairing. Forget encouraging abstinence or suggesting that sex should wait until marriage; after all, that might damage someone’s psyche and result in lifelong mental anguish.

Later on in the article Levine writes, “Pediatricians have the responsibility to provide culturally effective care to help reduce health disparities.” Seriously? I would think medically effective care would be the standard. It seems to me that the pediatrician’s foremost responsibility would be the health of the patient. Apparently not, or least not that exclusively. Now, the care provided must be “culturally effective.” Translation: do not even think about taking any attitude other than affirming the “alternative lifestyles.”

Levine writes, “Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, is not a ‘problem’ or ‘risk behavior’ in itself.” That’s interesting. Let’s set aside the fact that homosexual behavior is a sin, which certainly qualifies it as a “problem.” Levine’s statement is interesting because prior to making this statement he spent a considerable chunk of his article addressing the mental health disparities, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual and reproductive health disparities and general health disparities of LGBTQ young people. It would seem, then, to the uninformed (like me) that this is a risk behavior “in itself.” But as I said, I am evidently uniformed. The problem comes not from the behavior, but from the fact that parents, physicians and the culture as a whole fails to embrace and affirm LGBTQ youth, thus driving them to homelessness, despair, poor self esteem and, eventually, highly risky behaviors.

Levine says, “One of the challenges to health care is removing barriers to care and creating an environment welcoming all teens.” By that he means, of course, that LGBTQ teens must feel welcomed. One of the ways to do that is to use gender-neutral terms when questioning or discussing sexual topics with patients. Why? Well, because… After all, “A nurse asking a teenage girl who is in a relationship with another woman about her boyfriend may be interpreted as nonaccepting of her relationship.” Furthermore, the office needs to be decorated in such a way as to welcome LGBTQ youth. “The office environment can be made welcoming for all teens by placing in the waiting room items such as brochures on a variety of adolescent topics, including sexual orientation, posters showing both same- and opposite-gender couples, and notices about support groups, if available in the region. … Even a small ‘rainbow’ button (often a symbol of acceptance of sexual minority individuals) or decal on an office bulletin board or door symbolizes openness and acceptance of diverse sexual orientation and will be appreciated by sexual minority teens and their parents.” Of course what Levine overlooks, or ignores, is that this kind of behavior and this kind of decor will absolutely not make the office welcoming to “all teens.” Many teens and parents would be offended by the things Levine describes. But remember, that is our insidious heterosexism.

Levine concludes his article with these statements: “Pediatricians have an obligation to ensure that sexual minority youth have access to a full range of appropriate health care services. As with all adolescents and young adults, sexual minority youth need honest answers and compassion in dealing with issues and questions around sexual orientation, identity, and sexual behaviors.” Of course pediatricians must provide all necessary medical care for their patients, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation; no sane person would argue otherwise. Levine, however, completely misses the fact that his entire article goes about making sure that pediatricians their staff members do not provide honest answers about “sexual orientation, identity, and sexual behaviors.” We cannot both tell people what to think, what to say and how to act and encourage them to be honest. We cannot tell people that what is sin is simply an alternative and then ask them to be honest. But then neither can we tell doctors to do everything they can to welcome and affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and simultaneously tell them make sure all patients feel welcome and comfortable.

Every human being is entitled to be treated with dignity and should be cared for when their health is endangered, regardless of who or what they think they are or claim to be. Beyond that, though, Dr. Levine and the AAP are no better than the elixir salesmen of the Old West; they’re saying a bunch of stuff that sounds good but has no legitimacy and no substance, and they’re promising something that just ain’t gonna happen.