The Real Threat of Screen Media That No One is Talking About

“Screen Media” is the buzzword in parenting these days. There’s plenty of paranoid talk about the dangers of exposing your children to too much screen media including television, the Internet, tablets, smartphones and associated apps. Parental fears usually address the issues listed by the American Academy of Pediatrics: ADD, ADHD, academic problems, sleep and eating disorders, obesity and “risky behaviors” like sexting.

While these are legitimate potential ramifications, the AAP’s statement is far from all-encompassing. Not every kid who surfs the net or spends more time texting than talking with friends will become an anti-social, obese porn addict. What the AAP doesn’t warn you about is the general obliviousness that arises from tech addiction and the real-life consequences of being unable to distinguish reality from what you view on a screen.

Parents, and especially grandparents born before the digital age, are amazed when they see a young child easily operate a computer or iPad, because to them, the concept of computer technology is fascinating. However, watch any toddler at play and you’ll realize why computers come so naturally: You hit a button and you get a result. That cause-and-effect paradigm is the first lesson of play. Whether it is a wooden toy or a costly tech gadget, the action and ensuing gratification are the same.

What isn’t the same is the sense of agency perceived by the user. Young children playing on a computer react to what they see. They cannot manipulate what is being put in front of them on the screen. They can only perform the required actions in order to receive the desired response. Contrast this pattern of interaction with a set of toy blocks or an art project: With those materials children have full control over the outcome. They control where the blocks are placed, how the construction paper is cut, where the glitter is glued. Screen media fosters a sense of dependence virtually unknown to children outside of the parent-child bond.