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.

Digital Dementia

I read a report recently of a new ailment that seems to be afflicting young people around the world, though the term originated in South Korea: digital dementia. What is that exactly? Well, according to the South Korean doctors who coined the term, and as reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph, it is “a deterioration in cognitive abilities that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.” (Click here for the article). What causes this deterioration? An overuse of technology like smart phones and gaming devices. The article cites Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, as saying that the overuse of such devices actually “hampers the balanced development of the brain.”

According to the reports out of South Korea more than 18 percent of Koreans between the ages of 10 and 19 are using their phones more than seven hours per day. South Korea is considered to be the most technologically-connected nation in the world, and more than 64% of Korean teenagers have a smart phone, a number that tripled from 2011 to 2013. The overuse of these devices is causing poor development in the right side of the brain, which is where concentration occurs. Doctors speculate that this could lead to the onset of actual dementia in 15% of those impacted.

South Korea is not the only place where technology is overused, of course. The article in The Telegraph references a book entitled Digital Dementia written in 2012 by Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist. As best I can tell from a quick search on Amazon this book is not available in English, so I have not read it and am unlikely to be able to do so in the near future, but the article in The Telegraph reports that Spitzer warns that the damage caused by the overuse of electronic devices is irreversible, and he has called for banning digital media from German classrooms.

I can appreciate the good doctor’s position, but I do not think banning technology is the answer–not in classrooms, at least. Technology is a tool that allows teachers to do some wonderful things in their classrooms–things that were unthinkable even when I was in high school (which was not all that long ago really). I think a bit of caution on the part of parents is wise. I am surely not the only one who has wondered about the wisdom of parents equipping their pre-adolescent children with phones that cost hundreds of dollars, can take crystal clear digital pictures and have instant connectivity to the Internet. There is simply no need. Even worse, though, is when those same parents allow their children to use the device whenever they want, and for as long as they want. Don’t even get me started on cell phone etiquette! Forget digital dementia; maybe we should be on the look out for the complete loss of muscles in every part of the body but the thumbs when people are texting each other from fifteen feet away!

So where does the U.S. stand in this coming digital disaster? According to the March 2013 report from the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 78% of U.S. teenagers (ages 12 to 17) have cell phones, with 47% owning smart phones. That means, the report states, that 37% of all U.S. teens have smart phones, up from 23% in 2011–a significant increase, but not nearly the tripling that occurred in South Korea. Yet, 74% of U.S. teens say they access the Internet on cell phones or other mobile devices at least occasionally, and 25% of teens say they are “cell-mostly” users of the Internet–a number significantly higher than the 15% of adults who identify themselves as such. A finding that I found particularly troubling given the predators that are out there is that a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys report being cell-mostly Internet users–and while 71% of teens who access the Internet on a home computer say they do so on a device they share with other family members, that is highly unlikely to be the case with those who use the Internet primarily via cell phone. (If you want to read the entire Teens and Technology 2013 report you can do so here).

So, what is my point? Well, first of all, I think the term “digital dementia” is a bit silly. I think the last thing we need is another label for mental health professionals to slap on teenagers (or adults) who are basically lacking in common sense and self control. At the same time, I think there are legitimate concerns over the amount of time teenagers are spending on digital devices. I would strongly encourage parents to limit both the amount of time their children and teens have access to cell phones and other digital devices and to seriously consider whether or not their children and teens need smart phones or cell phone access to the Internet. My gut instinct is that there are very few times parents will find that their children and teens do need such devices. That said, though, I feel just as strongly that prohibiting the use of cell phones and other tech devices by children and teens is equally unhealthy. We live in a world where technology is ever-present, and that is not going to go away. Effective parenting will involve training and equipping children to exercise self control and discernment in both how to spend money (hundreds of dollars on a phone that is basically a mini computer is seldom justifiable) and how to use technology in a safe, healthy, and God-honoring manner. Parents need to take to heart their God-given responsibility to teach and train their children, and they need to take to heart Psalm 37:30, which in the New Living Translation reads, “The godly offer good counsel; they teach right from wrong.”