It's Christmas Eve in the Digital Age, but for those concerned about the growing amount of screen time that teenagers and young children—even infants—are now experiencing, the holiday gift-giving season may become an increasingly "horrifying" affair.
"Babies and young children are spending huge amounts of time with screen media when really what they need is hands-on creative play, active time and face-to face time with the people that love them." –Dr. Susan Linn, CCFC
As the rise of technology dovetails with the multi-billion dollar toy and media industries, children are now growing up in a digital environment that may seem harmless to some but could be dramatically harming key components of their physical, mental and emotional growth at one of the most precious and fragile stages of human development.
The New York Times reports on Tuesday:
A recent survey of 1,000 parents with children between 2 and 10 found that more than half planned to buy a tech item for their children this holiday season. About two-thirds of those planned to give a tablet or smartphone, according to the survey, which was taken for PBS Kids, the brand of the public broadcasting network aimed at young children.
“Smarter Giving With Apps!” shouted the December cover of Manhattan Family, a monthly publication geared to families with young children. The article, written by a kindergarten teacher, noted that “traditional gifts, like clothes and toys” can be costly “and not always what children are wishing for.” Apps, on the other hand, she wrote, are cost-effective, educational and fun — the perfect gift.
But are they the perfect gift? Hardly, say experts.
In fact, child development researchers and doctors are increasingly alarmed by the growing amount of screen time that children—especially those under the age of two—are receiving or being allowed.
In October, as Common Dreams reported, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an updated version of their media usage guidelines for young children and warned parents that adolescents should have no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time per day and that children under the age of two should have none whatsoever.
But according to Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the overall trend is going in the wrong direction.
"Babies and young children are spending huge amounts of time with screen media when really what they need is hands-on creative play, active time and face-to face time with the people that love them," Linn said in an interview with the Associated Press published Tuesday.
"The best toys are the ones that just lie there until the child transforms them," Linn said pointing to blocks and stuffed animals as examples. "If all children do is push a button, that's not the kind of play that promotes learning."
And most pediatricians agree, saying that screen time that interferes with human interaction is deeply harmful.
"The single most important thing for children is time with parents and caregivers," says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.
He is among the many doctors who firmly believe that too much screen time can lead to behavior problems and delayed social development later on in childhood. "Nothing is more important in terms of social development," Christakis added. "If time with the tablet comes at the expense of that, that's not good."
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Meet the 'iPad Apptivity Seat'
Though many parents and some experts repeat the idea there's a "need for balance" between technology, human interaction and more traditional kinds of play and learning, the role of marketing by both media companies who are creating apps and toy-makers who are hoping to profit from the next mega-gift hit make it increasingly difficult for parents to avoid the onslaught of screens.
In perhaps the most egregious example of toy-maker complicity in the problem, Fisher-Price has now come under fire from parents, pediatricians, and child welfare advocates for marketing what they call the "iPad Apptivity Seat." The product, specifically designed for newborns, is a small, cushioned bucket seat with a built-in extension arm and case that holds an iPad just inches from the baby's face.
The description on Amazon.com—where it's listed as one of the “best gifts for kids in 2013”—tells prospective customers: "If you insert and lock your iPad into the mirror's case, the visual display provides another way to stimulate and engage baby while protecting your device from baby's sticky fingers."
After learning about the product, Dr. Linn's organization, the CCFC, launched a recall campaign demanding that Fisher-Price remove it from store shelves and sent a letter to the company along with more than 12,000 names gathered in their petition drive.
“As a pediatrician, I am horrified by this product and will be advising my patients to avoid it." –Dr. Mary Kerosky
“In Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s 13-year history, no petition we’ve hosted has garnered more signatures—or generated more passion,” said Dr. Linn in the letter. “People expect better of Fisher-Price and are shocked that the company is selling a product with such a cynical disregard for infants’ wellbeing.”
Though Fisher-Price claimed that they were not marketing the 'Apptivity Seat' as an education toy, the CCFC said this "simply isn't true":
A screen capture of Fisher-Price’s Apptivity webpage on “The Wayback Machine” shows that, as recently as December 3, the company claimed “Play and learning are at baby’s fingertips, with free apps you can download for your iPad®" and “Early learning apps introduce baby to letters, numbers and more, through sing-along songs, sounds & friendly characters." Both claims have been removed from Fisher-Price’s website since the controversy erupted, but the seat’s packaging still advertises that “Play and learning are at baby’s fingertips” along with other references to “early learning.” Fisher-Price’s assertion that the Apptivity Seat is a “niche” product is belied by the fact that Amazon.com is marketing the seat as one of its “best gifts for kids in 2013.”
In an effort to undermine CCFC’s assertion that the seat encourages parents to leave babies alone with an iPad, Fisher-Price claims that it has a timeout feature “only allows for 10 minutes of activity with our app before requiring a manual reset.” But CCFC timed three apps and found that one, Laugh & Learn Shapes & Color Music show for Baby, ran indefinitely while two others, Development with Contrast Colors for Baby and Soothing Sights & Songs for Baby, timed out at 12.5 minutes and 13.5 minutes respectively.
Dr. Linn added: “It’s clear Fisher-Price is attempting damage control, but the best way to protect their brand is do the right thing for babies and families and pull the plug on the iPad bouncy seat.”
Many of those who joined the campaign—including parents, doctors, and educators—expressed their personal outrage.
"This is shameful, and a violation of the rights of our youngest children to make their own choices about what to engage with," declared Karyn Callaghan of Hamilton, Ontario. "What a cynical move!”
“As a pediatrician, I am horrified by this product and will be advising my patients to avoid it," said Dr. Mary Kerosky of Anchorage, Alaska. "I am a fan of some of the ‘old’ Fisher-Price toys and hoped to buy some for family members. But I will be boycotting Fisher-Price until this toy is recalled.”
And Catherine Broz, a schoolteacher in Seaside, California said: “I am an early childhood educator, currently teaching parent education for parents in a birth to age 3 program. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for babies at all. I am shocked that this product will be marketed to parents. Babies need to be stimulated by human interaction that engages their five senses. This product forces an infant to look at a screen and blocks their view of the real world around them. I strongly urge Fisher-Price to remove this product from the market. Until then, I will use this product as an example of the harmful affects of screen time on infants in my classes.”