What Every Parent Should Know Before Introducing Their Young Child to Technology

What Every Parent Should Know Before Introducing Their Young Child to Technology

You might want to think twice before handing your toddler your smartphone. Check out our Good for You Conversation with Dr. Gail Saltz on what you need to know about children, technology and how it impacts their development.

In a report on CBS This Morning: Saturday, CBS contributor Lee Woodruff said, “A toddler should be rolling around, touching things, developing their brains, and not checking out the latest YouTube video.” Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz was interviewed and expressed her concern about a smartphone being used “for babysitting purposes or the fear that your child can’t be bored.”

In our Good For You Conversation with Dr. Saltz, we asked her:

What should every parent know before introducing their young child to technology?

The younger the child, the more rapidly brain development is occurring and there are windows of opportunity for some developmental tasks that you want to reap the benefits of and not replace with a tremendous amount of screen time, basically.

What happens if a kid is in front of a smartphone or an iPad, if they are one or two years old, and they’re using that instead of playing with toys or other people?

It’s diverting time away from developmental tasks that are important, like verbal development, vocabulary development, and the ability to engage with conversation, which is not only about your words, but about expression, body language, reading facial cues and mimicking those cues. That is important for those tasks, and screen time is simply a diversion.

Give a sense to parents about how kids develop their verbal skills, their ability to speak, to learn, to socialize, and why that time– that toddler time– is so vital to brain development.

Well, kids learn language from listening and from mimicking and looking at faces and articulation and from hearing the phonetic pronunciation, and those phonetic centers develop at certain key times. And when a child is deprived of that, they lose some of those abilities. Now, obviously, I’m talking about something fairly extreme in terms of truly being deprived, but your wealth of vocabulary comes from what you hear, and the context in which you hear it. We know that children who are read to from a plethora of books that have extensive vocabulary have more impressive vocabularies. So, I do think those early years are the important time.

How concerned should parents be when they use an iPad or a smartphone as a babysitter or as a distraction to keep their kids happy?

You know, there is a time and a place for everything. If you’re trapped on a plane with your kid and they need a distraction, I don’t think its criminal to hand them an iPad or a phone, because, in that moment, you may have that need. But I think there’s a difference between that and chunks of the day where your child may stay absorbed in that and may not interact, creatively play, manipulate objects, interact with you, interact with another child. And that’s really what I’m saying is not such a great idea.

Help parents to understand why it’s important that children have play time and even time to be bored.

Boredom breeds problem solving. Creative thought, play, stimulates imagination. Imaginative play is actually valuable in terms of being able to think creatively, explore, come up with solutions and engage with your inner world, your fantasy world.

Are children today– young children, especially toddlers– in a sense, guinea pigs, because we don’t know what the long-term ramifications are of the technology?

I guess you could say that. I think each generation has its new set of challenges and this is a challenge for this generation. It’s not just for little kids, but even high school and college kids who are tasked with having all these methods of communicating. You can even see this in college-age kids who sit at lectures with their computers and are instant messaging with someone or watching something that isn’t related to what they’re doing, or playing a game. Most kids don’t have the innate self-discipline to just say, “I’m not going to do any of it.” And that means that they’re sitting in class, if you think about it, with half an ear.

Right, and with multitasking, you run the risk of doing something not quite right.

There is no such thing as actual multitasking. I mean, I use that term, too, but your brain cannot really attend to two engaging things completely simultaneously, so what really is happening is you are going back and forth between the two stimuli and you are attending to one and then attending to the other. It may be very rapid that you are going back and forth, but there is always some time required to re-engage in what you weren’t engaging in at that moment. And so, it’s really less effectual. It’s time lost; you are less able to really attend.

It’s almost like people aren’t aware of what they’re not getting out of what they’re doing, because they think, “Oh, I’m doing all these things at the same time.”

Of course. People are rarely aware of what they’re not getting, and, to some degree, there’s a wish to not know.

Parents are the role model. There was a cartoon recently in a newspaper where a little child is on his smartphone and looking up going, “Mom, Dad!” and Mom and Dad aren’t hearing because Mom and Dad are on their smartphones too.

Right. That is a difficult reality– that work has encroached into 24/7, and people use their devices to stay engaged. The problem is if you have it spill over into when you would be talking with your kid– family time, down time, social time, restaurant time. You know, it never works to do as I say and not as I do. Kids will always do what they see you doing. You can say, “Don’t do what I’m doing” all you like, but it will not really be effectual.

What is your advice to parents about making time for dinners together?

I think there is very much something to be said for family dinner. Family dinner has a ridiculous number of benefits that people vastly underestimate. A regular family dinner benefits kids’ grades, kids’ standardized test scores, decreases the incidence of teen pregnancy, of teen drug and alcohol abuse, of teen suicide. Family dinners are highly protective, and they’re protective not because people would be staring at their phones, but because there’s conversation going on– there’s engagement. There’s strengthening of that relationship, and it gives kids a feeling of being supported. They learn about world events. They expand their vocabulary. And I do think, I mean, I’m not saying Leave It To Beaver, but yes, sit down and have meals with your family and don’t have your phone nearby. And don’t be on your computer. If that is too difficult for you, then I think you have to rethink your priorities– if your priority is to turn out kids who are well adjusted and not consumed with their technical devices. Look at the job market. Kids are graduating college; they’re bouncing back to home. It’s very difficult to get a job. Who’s going to get a job? People with people skills, people who accomplish something and then have the ability to go out and translate that in the world. Lots of time on a device is probably not helping with that.

Back to the parents as role models. I remember meeting somebody who told me in his house there’s no technology at the dinner table. And he begins every meal with his two young children and his wife by asking, “What did you do today to help somebody?” And, at one point, his little girl couldn’t think of anything. And he said, “Well, you helped Mommy clear a dish from the dinner table.” But these were parents who wanted to make sure that they had their special time together and that their kids would think about what they did that day to be of help to another person.

We definitely have dinner together as a family every night, except Saturday night, which is my husband’s and my date night. And nobody brings any technology to the table. I think that’s been hugely valuable. We talk frequently about how life is not lived on Facebook. Facebook is kids trying to construct what looks like my life is one big party all the time, but, obviously, no one’s life is like that, and trying to keep perspective about that.

Well, it’s almost like writing about something vs. living it and experiencing it. When you’re so busy writing about it and checking out everybody else’s life…

Exactly. We talk about that often. I have three daughters, so, needless to say, I’ve been privy to, are you here? We’re at a function and half the girls are taking selfies of themselves and they’re not engaged in whatever is going on; they’re just engaged with their phone. The best of life comes from experiences, and experiences mean being in the moment, and that means not just taking pictures of the moment. So, you have to live that yourself as a parent. You have to get out from behind the picture taking and putting it up and talking about putting it up, and be present with your kids in the moment.

More on Dr. Gail Saltz:

Best known for her work as a health, sex and relationship contributor on NBC’s Today, Dr. Saltz is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a reputation of being the go-to expert on a variety of psychological issues, especially those pertaining to women’s emotional well-being. Dr. Saltz has shared her remarkable expertise on The View, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline, 20/20, Primetime and more. Her expert advice and experience have also been featured in the Associated Press, Newsweek, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parade, Redbook, Woman’s World, Town & Country, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, WebMD and more. Tom Brokaw called Dr. Saltz “a voice of wisdom and insight in a world of confusion and contradictions.”

Dr. Saltz is the author of the critically-acclaimed Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back, Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie and, most recently, The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead To a Better Life. She has also written two children’s books, Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts and Changing You: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality.

A graduate of University of Virginia School of Medicine, Dr. Saltz served her internship and residency in Internal Medicine and Psychiatry at Cornell-Weill School of Medicine and The New York Presbyterian Hospital. Her undergraduate studies were at Lehigh University, where she earned a B.A. in Biology and Psychology. She is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, a psychoanalyst with The New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and has a private practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Contact Dr. Gail at inquiries@drgailsaltz.com, 212-289-5166.

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