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Second Hand Screens

A guest blog from Reach Out and Read Co-Founder Dr. Robert Needlman about the importance of parents looking away from their screens and engaging with their young children. A version of this article first appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News.

Electronic media are everywhere, all the time.  More and more, screens touch every corner of our lives and the lives of our children. I can see that there are both benefits and downsides to this, but as a pediatrician concerned with healthy childhood development there is one aspect of our new ultra-connected lifestyles that particularly concerns me. It's a problem I call "second hand screens."

Consider this everyday sight: a young mother is pushing her infant down the street in a stroller.  It's a lovely day.  The infant is gazing up into his mother's face.  The mother is gazing at her cellphone. Like second hand smoke, second hand screens affect young children even though they aren't the users. 

still face experiment
Decades ago, Harvard researcher Ed Tronick published a series of studies of what came to be called the Still Face paradigm.  Parents (mothers, actually) were instructed to talk with their infants.  The babies would coo; the mothers would "woooo" back. Video cameras documented the joyous interaction, described as a dance.  Back and forth the partners would talk and play, now and then taking breaks when things got too exciting, then starting up again.  Then, at a signal from the research team, the mother would stop responding, making her face blank, "still." 


The baby's response, at first, was to act even more adorable, as if trying harder to recapture the mother's interest. Then, when the mother remained impassive, the baby would become angry, crying in rage. Then, when even that failed, the baby would slump back, defeated, looking depressed.  Babies whose mothers actually did suffer from depression did less flirting and protesting. Instead, they skipped right to "defeated." It was as if they knew - had learned - that mother wasn't to be counted on as a partner. These babies protected themselves by investing less emotional energy in the exchange, building walls against closeness and disappointment.


Second hand screens, I fear, are re-creating Tronick's still face experiment, except that nobody seems to be learning from it this time.   We don't yet have great science to demonstrate, beyond a doubt, the effects that screens and other new media have on children.  Some of those effects are likely to be positive; some, I'm pretty sure, are poisonous.  When compulsive screen use regularly interferes with parent-child communication, I think there is real reason for concern. We teach parents that second hand smoke hurts children.  Perhaps we also need to start talking about the risks of second hand screens.

Written by Robert Needlman at 16:00

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