Not every kid is umbilically and emotionally attached to their cell phone, and not every parent makes a habit out of scrolling mindlessly through an iPhone through a toddler’s tantrum. But there is enough to make this into a general developmental concern.
There are two sides of the problem here, kids’ usage and parents’ usage of cell phones. Kids’ usage boils down to parenting decisions, anyway. It’s easy to pacify a child with a phone or tablet, but it gets progressively harder, on an exponential curve, to keep it from becoming a dependence.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund released a report in 2017 that thankfully indicates that it’s unfair to classify screen dependence as an addiction, and it won’t be until children or adults are “so dependent on their devices that they experience severe impairment in a major area of life.” That is addiction in all but name; adolescents who howl for screens without compromise, bully others or get bullied online, generally have a less active, more lonely quality of life may not technically be addicted, but they are in a bad place. We owe our children more than that.
Kids may not be able to say this in words, but what they truly need is attention and connection with their parents. Being ignored by my mom was the worst punishment I could get. That was reserved for when I was really bad, and it hurt to the core. But now, I see parents ignoring children all the time. Parents stare deep into their phones, then snap at their kids for pulling all kinds of loud, obnoxious antics, which seem like the only recourse kids have to grab their parents’ attention.
A couple months ago, I was trying to board a severely delayed flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. We had been waiting in a miserable, defeated line for an hour or so. In front of me were a father and two kindergarten-age children. It was early afternoon, and the kids were in a pretty good mood, all things considered. But their dad stared at his phone for the whole time I was there, totally uninterrupted except for when he stopped — sometimes, without even looking up — to yell at the kids to stop jumping around and being loud. The kids weren’t even being very disruptive. Every once in a while, one would tug on his pant leg or call for him, which he ignored.
To me, that would be a bit soul-crushing. But these kids didn’t seem as fazed; they must have been used to it. I wonder what kind of person this will produce if it’s our status quo; will basic manners change? Will people not know when they’re hurting others? I think it won’t be that dire, but it's not impossible.
Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood have been screen staples for decades, and that kind of children's show should stay right where it is. However, endless tablet and phone games for children are not the same. The former are about other people and our relationships with them; the latter are generally not.
My mom is always telling me that happiness in life is happiness in relationships: friends, family, spouses, co-workers, acquaintances and everyone. There are plenty of reasons not to let human connection slide. If we want our children to be happy, we have to raise them that way. Among the host of other reasons to keep close tabs on our children’s relationships to screens, this is one that stands out to me.