It sounds like a horror movie – and for many parents, it often feels like one. Across America, millions of children spend hours each day with their faces buried in electronic devices. Where’s the off-switch?
The Walking Dead, a TV show about an imagined zombie apocalypse, has been a huge hit across the USA.
But it’s tempting to wonder how many parents must occasionally look up from the TV to their smartphone-carrying children – monosyllabic, shuffling, far-away eyes – and wonder if it’s really so fictional after all.
This is 2016, folks. Dawn of the Text. The Night of the Living Tweet. Nightmare on Facebook Street.
An army of downward-looking children skulks around the nation. ‘Texting Thumb’ is a genuine medical condition. Emergency rooms have seen soaring rates of young casualties (cutely named petextrians) injured while walking with an electronic device.
And the really scary part? The average child in America now spends more time consuming electronic media than going to school.
This might be less of an issue if research didn’t strongly suggest that excessive screen time can harm the physical development of young people’s brains.
Such concerns are a big deal for Dr. Delaney Ruston, a physician and filmmaker (and mother) based in New York.
The doctor’s new documentary, Screenagers, both documents her own digital struggles with two teenaged children and explores the broader health implications for a plugged-in generation.
Pricelessly, it also reassures countless worried parents that their struggles aren’t unique. (Hey, if even this high-achieving uber-mom can’t control her kids’ smartphone use, maybe we’re not so bad…)
Screenagers pulls no punches, and its core message is pretty blunt: Too much screen time is a bad thing.
According to Dr. Ruston: “Our current fast-paced digital media – flash games, online videos, social media feeds, constant texting – seems to tire the brain. This has major implications for kids and how they reach their full academic potential.”
Now, measure that against a massive piece of research from 2014 (it covered 42 nations) which looked at the impact of those musty, old, paper-based things that kids used to look at. You know, books.
Its conclusion? The more books a family has in the house, the better readers their children will become. Teenagers in homes with around 100 books, for example, were on average reading at 1.5 years beyond their grade-level.
But is life that simple? Could part of the answer to the modern screen malaise really lie in the humble book? Yes, it could.
Reading on actual, old-fashioned paper is as good for young brains as screen time is bad. Books are the kale salad to a screen’s Double-Mega-Cheeseburger, the simple, refreshing apple to the digital cream-filled donut.
Books engage a child’s imagination and feed the intellect. By contrast, studies show direct links between too much screen time and worse attention spans, as well as negative effects on learning.
But ah, you’ll say: I can’t get my kids to even look at a book. And it’s true that a boring print book, just lying there, will look much less appetizing to most young eyes than the dizzying swirl of images and sounds they’ll find on a screen.
But who ever said raising children was easy? Turning kids on to books in a digital age takes time and a lot of patience. But it can be done. Buy books, read to them, discuss storylines, let them see you reading.
Basically, the best thing you can do is act as a kind of benevolent guide to your kids. Of course, if you’re in tune with their tastes you can help out by suggesting stuff they might like. (Which can be more work than it sounds!)
But once you’ve shown them what’s out there, let them choose whatever books they want to read.
The choice element is critical here. And it’s at the heart of what we do at Book Trust.
We enable children from low-income households to buy their own books throughout the school year – and they choose every one.
It’s a no-brainer, really. No-one ever encouraged a child to fall in love with books by telling them what to read.
Lose the phones
Ultimately, any true reader – adult or child – knows that nothing on a screen could ever compare with the giddy pleasure of getting lost in a good book.
The real challenge for any parent is simply getting children to put their phones down for long enough to pick up a book and realize this for themselves.
But take heart. It can be done. And once you do unlock a child’s love of reading books, they’ll be hooked for life.
Give them a good send-off: Eight Tips for Bedtime Reading.
Find out Why Books Matter for Children.