Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Put screen genie back in bottle

The Unspin Room

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WESTPORT, Conn. —In discussions about the so-called "digital divide" between the haves and the have nots, the common wisdom is that we need to get more computers and internet access into the hands of minority and rural children. In an age when computer and cultural literacy are crucial to success, this is a valid goal. But electronic media represent a double-edged sword, with potential benefits for older kids as well as risks. And for the youngest among us, the screen is a poor parent.

For African Americans, with more than half having come of age in the digital era, the use of the smartphone has been transformative. According to a recent Nielsen report on "The Digital Lives of Black Consumers," African Americans stream video more frequently that the rest of the population, so much so that R&B and Hip-Hop have finally dethroned Rock as the top musical genre. In a telltale metric, 28 percent of Twitter users are black, fully twice the percentage of the populace. For those of you who watch the NBC hit series "The Voice," this is an interesting data point to remember as the show's live voting via Twitter may reflect its demographic skew.

The rub of the internet is an addictive genie. The Center on Media and Child Health of Boston Children's Hospital sums it up: "Adolescents suffering from internet addiction may have lower gray matter as well as structural changes in the brain over time." We now know that young people's brains stay plastic into their 20s.

The early years pose an even greater risk. Studies have shown that high screen time at a young age, usually in the form of television, correlates with obesity, lack of physical fitness, delays in cognitive development, and long-term effects on psychosocial health and well-being. The boob-tube baby effect is so established by now that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no digital media at all before 24 months of age, and for three years after that a maximum of an hour a day, and only if co-viewed with an adult who can guide, explain and turn the darned thing off.

TIME FOR TEXTBOOKS?

By two years old, most children exceed the Academy's recommendation. According to the University of Michigan, kids 2-5 consume an average of 32 hours a week glued to the TV. As they age, minority groups comprise the heaviest users of screen devices. According to a study of kids 8-18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, screen time per day already exceeds 3 hours for Caucasian children, Hispanic kids log an additional two hours on top of that, and African American youngsters cap that off with another hour. For multi-taskers, there may be a textbook cracked open, or maybe not.

Whether there is a tight connection to screening, or its own bear market, the Kaiser Family Foundation tallied 42 percent of young people reading newspapers just before the turn of the century, and merely 23 percent a decade later. If Kaiser dares to look again this year, a current snapshot of a race to the bottom of literacy would likely not surprise those of us who traffic in journalism. Already, social media postings exceed newspapers as a news source for the young. And "fake news," as with Facebook, is a rabbit hole with continental drift.

While smartphones have yielded connectivity and information flow for disadvantaged kids, our societal inability to distinguish between good and bad uses of electronic media in the lives of the young is a dark cumulus in the digital cloud. Writing last year in The New York Times, Naomi Schaefer Riley noted that "the real digital divide in this country is between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success."

Much of electronic media for kids represents empty calories and a roadblock to more productive learning time, yet it is hard not to sympathize with a beleaguered parent, perhaps working two jobs in the service and retail sectors where a decent living is hard to come by, when the screen-based babysitter enables a few hours of cooking, cleaning or rest. We do not help educate or enable working parents to bring their own time and attention, or to find and use resources for their children that make better use of electronic stimuli. One of the great myths of digital media is that its interactivity is itself a good thing. And for the younger set, television can serve as a convenient pacifier, but as a substitute for human interaction it sucks.

We have seen all too much of the seductive magic of electronic and digital media in our kids' lives. It's time to put the screen genie back in the bottle.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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