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.

That dependence forms the basis for an addiction further fostered as the child grows by parents eager to provide learning experiences in the name of education, and communication devices in the name of safety. As a result, tweens and teens now depend on smartphones to both communicate with friends and achieve preferred status in peer groups. A new level of dependence on technology is reached as the smart device grows with the child’s need: First parent, now friend and even lover. The false sense of reality develops from one of childhood fantasy governed by games and fictional characters to an alternate reality where video conversations are easily deleted and embarrassing photos can never die.

This is where the line between the virtual world and real world become blurred. A recent horror movie illustrates this point perfectly. A gang of friends Facebook-shames one of their own to the point that she commits suicide. One year later on the anniversary of her demise, the friends are all video chatting when they are simultaneously haunted by her ghost. Lights flash, connections go fuzzy and instead of simply getting out of their supposedly haunted homes, they remain locked to their computers, unable to detach from virtual reality to escape their impending doom. I spent the entire preview muttering to my husband, “Why don’t they just pull the plug?” “Then there’d be no movie,” he quipped in response.

The first thing I learned in a Krav Maga class for professional women was to leave my cell phone in my purse while I’m walking. What we justify as multitasking – walking while texting, emailing or using social media – is an action that leaves us vulnerable to assault. By focusing on your phone, you’ve turned yourself off to the world around you and lost your ability to perceive potential threats in your midst. Controlling your children's relationships with screen media may help them lose a few pounds or make a friend, but more importantly it will help them to establish a clear understanding of their relationship to the world around them. Limiting their use of screen media will, most importantly, allow them to develop  their independence so that when they do have to engage with electronic devices they understand that they are the ones in charge.