Taming the Digital Media Beast with Positive Parental Attention!

The television world has come a long way since the Saturday morning cartoon lineup I used to watch as a kid was the high-water mark of children’s entertainment. Now, my five children are growing up in a 24/7 connected universe saturated with the good, the bad and (sometimes) the really ugly. I started thinking about this a lot more after listening to Dr. Dmitri Christakis, MD, MPH talk about brain growth and cognitive stimulation at TedxRainier.

Our family has access to 17 media devices between us.  They are in cars.  In our bedrooms and our pockets. They are phones, TVs, VCRs, DVDplayers, computers and tablets.  Does that make us technical junkies and digital media hogs? not necessarily.  In his November 25th post To Connect or not to Connect? My Flip colleague and fellow MCDM grad student Kevin Michael Martin discussed the rise in early age screen time and the need for a “balanced media diet.”

But taming the beast isn’t just about digital media time; it is also about spending time with your kids. My wife Natalie runs Little Sprouts Preschool with Melani Verner, a ten year teaching veteran. Melani likes to call this one–on–one time with a child “positive parental attention.”

According to the brain growth chart in Dr. Christakis’ TedxRainier talk, my brain has already started losing mass (can I use that as an excuse when I forget something my wife asked me to do?).  Contrast that with my three year old daughter who is at her synapse peak.  She is a sponge for information and experiences.

So how do we reach a balance? too little stimulation can result in a sensory-deprived brain and overstimulation is thought to precondition the mind to be constantly stimulated and can possibly result in behavioral issues later in life. As a father himself, Dr. Christakis and co-author, Frederick j. Zimmerman, PhD, decided to delve deeper into the impact of T.V. on early childhood development and co-authored the book “The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids.”

Of the 17 devices in our family, the T.V. is the largest and I must admit I have used it as an electronic “babysitter.”  I believe that I have also used it effectively as a teaching tool.  According to  Christakis and Zimmerman, “Much like a food processor or a power saw, television can be dangerous. But properly used at the appropriate age and with the requisite adult supervision, it can produce wonderful things.”

He continues, “At its best, TV can educate and inspire. High-quality documentaries offer insights into history that no book can equal. Nature programs do more than teach us facts about the science of weather or animals’ native habitats; they take us to places many of us will never be able to visit. They capture scenes that take literally hundreds of hours of patient camera work and use technologies to take us to venues that it is not humanly possible to visit. Children’s educational shows have the proven ability to help children learn to read, to be kind, and to share. in short, when used appropriately, television has the power to expand horizons and help children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

The reality is that many kids don’t spend their time only watching the “good” shows. even if they do, the commercials can be extremely inappropriate for children of any age. Christakis and Zimmerman remind us that “Too much TV, or the wrong kind, can have lasting, damaging effects that no parent would welcome.”

How do you know what the limits should be? According to Christakis and Zimmerman, “We believe that there is a right amount of television for every child, and it is different for each one. The right amount depends on the child and what the show is. Parents know their children better than anyone else.”  The only way to really know if a show is right for your child is to watch it with them.  is it educational or purely focused on entertainment?  are there follow up activities that you can do with your child to reinforce the educational aspects? Does the child get angry or throw a temper tantrum after the show goes off?  if yes, then they may have watched too much.

I asked Melani if she had noticed a change in student behaviors over the last ten years as media has expanded into nearly every aspect of our lives. her answer surprised me. in her experience, “children who experience a lot of attention at home from a parent perform better in school at all levels. This child is more grounded, more able to follow directions, has a longer attention span, gets along well with others, and is able to learn more easily.  that positive attention from a parent can mean sitting down with the child and reading, teaching them how to play a game, praising the child for doing a somersault well or just talking with that child about the world around them.”

In their book, Christakis and Zimmerman tell a story of a young mother with a 3 year old and a new baby on the way. She used T.V. after birth to get some sanity time. This only made things worse for the 3 year old who was really dealing with jealousy issues. I have seen the same behavior in my children as new siblings entered our family. T.V. like a binky or a thumb seems great for short term fix, but thy ultimately have lasting consequences. The only way to solve the underlying problem is to spend one–on–one time with each child reassuring them that you love them and care about their feelings.

Melani cautions that parents sometime mistake busy time with quality time. “Some of these children are so overscheduled that they do not have the time to create, imagine, and achieve.  Years ago I had a child in my second grade classroom that started “Jaguar Club,” the school daycare starting at 6:30 AM and continuing after school until 6:00 PM.  Then he had language class and piano lessons before going home to sleep.  He would have very scary melt–downs and tantrums in school.

In addition to the positive and negative potential for T.V., software is providing real learning opportunities for young children – when used correctly.  I recently visited with Jordan Weisman at his latest startup digs where they were working on Go go Kiddo, a touch enabled application targeting kids 2 to 5 with “Vitamin-Fortified Fun”!

Jordan summarized the new application as “play, watch, read, do – with music, art, and games.”  Below are examples of the work they are doing with kids:

Although my 3 and 6 year olds are able to self-navigate the application, I find that they get more out of each session when I take the time to do it with them. The result is large eyes, big smiles and lots of laughter. sometimes, as Kevin pointed out in his post, it is nice to just unplug and do something without electricity. Christakis and Zimmerman provide this advice to those parents whose children have had too much digital media time: “More real time play: less fast-paced media.”

In Melani’s experience, the risk of not doing so is that those children “constantly need to be entertained. Instead of taking action or initiative, the children are reactive and have a difficult time thinking for themselves.”

Melani believes that “if we want a child to live up to his or her potential emotionally, academically, and socially, we need to provide the one–on–one time!  our children are worth it!”  Dr. Christakis concluded his Tedx talk with this thought – “Change the beginning and you change the whole story.”

Outside or inside, plugged–in or unplugged, I do have the choice and the resolve to spend more one–on–one time with each of my kids to provide “positive parental attention.” is it time for you to do the same with yours?

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