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
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
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