When my twins were about 10 months old, I would let them watch "Teletubbies" once in a while.
Now, before you start, I know the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any television for kids under the age of 2. But let me justify my actions by telling you a little about my life at the time: wife of a medical student who was rarely home, president of the Young Women organization in my church congregation, working full-time producing a radio show, zero family members living within 1,200 miles, and, frankly, going a little out of my mind. So forgive me, AAP, if I let my little ones veg out and watch weird puppets with televisions in their tummies once in a while.
Even at my twins’ young age, I was startled and a little concerned that while the TV was on, I could put food in front of their mouths and talk to them about eating it, and get no response. They wouldn’t even blink.
But that didn’t stop me from using a screen as a babysitter once in a while.
Fast forward 14 years and my teens can still get in that trance once in a while watching a movie or texting, but they are not digital zombies. These days, food in front of their face is usually enough to break the death stare.
Over the past few months, I’ve had friends share some pretty scary headlines on social media, “Are We All Turning Into Digital Zombies?” one asked. And the most terrifying from the New York Post: “It’s digital heroin: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.”
What parent wouldn’t want to know about and share this disturbing news? We need to warn humanity.
The problem is that it’s mostly baloney. The Post story talks about a 6-year-old whose mom let him spend every afternoon playing Minecraft and was then shocked to find he was addicted to it. The article says the mom found her son catatonic one night, with his iPad lying next to him when he should have been sleeping.
Similar things have happened to me. I’ve found my son playing with Hot Wheels when he should have been sleeping, and my daughter painting her nails when she should have been sleeping. Shall we label those practices automotive heroin and beautification heroin? No.
And articles like these are meant to scare parents. They are designed to cause parents to panic and grab all electronics in their home, pile them up in the town square and burn them Sleeping Beauty spinning-wheel style.
As with most scare tactics, there may be a bit of truth to the fear. But level heads must prevail. Mobile tech is and will forever more be an important part of modern life, and techies of all ages need to figure out the balance. A report by Common Sense Media shows 50 percent of teens admit they feel addicted to their phones. A majority of moms and dads know their kids have a hard time putting down their gadgets, but when 27 percent of parents admit to being addicted themselves, what’s a geek to do?
Here are some ideas:
Tech-free zones and times: Maybe the family restriction is at the dinner table, or in bedrooms after 8 p.m., or in the car. But enforce some places and times when gadgets are banned. Write down the rule — put it in vinyl lettering on the wall if you must — so there is no question, and then stick to it.
Have an open conversation: Parents should discuss with kids why the family needs such restrictions. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, tells The Verge that devices are just tools. Parents need to understand that gadgets aren’t inherently evil. Then they can teach their kids that what they do with them is what determines the outcome.
Parents should follow the rules, too: In that same Common Sense Media report, 56 percent of moms and dads admit to checking their phones while driving. And 41 percent of teens say their parents are distracted by devices when they are together. What’s good for the digital goose is good for the digital gander. Kids can spot a hypocrite a mile away. They’ll be much more willing to go along with the rules if parents follow them too.
Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.