One of my favorite fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson is The Emperor and the Nightingale.
It’s the story of a Chinese Emperor who lives in a beautiful palace, surrounded by manicured gardens that transition into wild forest. A nightingale — a type of bird with a beautiful voice — often comes to his window to sing, and its music brings the Emperor great joy.
One day he gets a gift from the Emperor of Japan. It’s a mechanical golden nightingale bedecked with dazzling gemstones. It can wind up and play a beautiful song whenever the Emperor of China would like.
Eventually the Emperor of China loses interest in the real nightingale, so it stops coming around. One day the mechanical nightingale breaks, and the Emperor is left with neither one.
The Emperor becomes deathly ill a few years later. The real nightingale learns that he is sick and returns to his window to sing, and the specter of death looming over the Emperor is so moved, he lets him live.
It is a beautiful story, but behind the story I see a thematic moral: the contrast between real life interactions and their mechanical substitutes — the live nightingale on one hand, and its mechanical twin on the other.
And as it relates to my own life as a parent, I see the moral of this story relating to the way that technology threatens one of the most important parts of raising children: the human connection our children need.
Kids have always loved watching TV, and our own childhoods were probably no exception. When the internet first came out, we loved “surfing the web” and talking to our friends on AOL’s instant messenger.
Fast forward almost thirty years to today, and many kids have their own computer, iPad, or smartphone — or all three. Recent studies are showing that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 may be spending as much as seven hours daily looking at a screen, whether that’s for school, socializing, or entertainment.
I think that too much screen time is not good for anyone. But as it relates to our children, I think too much screen time has additional dangers.
#1: Screen time can be dangerous.
It can be hard to monitor the online activities of a tech savvy child. You might also feel wrong about looking into the discussions they have with friends on social media or chatting apps (and that’s for you to decide, not me). Unfortunately, some children can experience bullying from their peers, strangers, and even adults online. Social media can also lead children to make unhealthy comparisons about themselves to others. And worst of all, sometimes children will encounter a predatory person who wants to exploit them sexually, or wantonly guide them into doing dangerous things for their amusement, like the people behind the infamous Momo or the Blue Whale Challenge.
#2: Screen time doesn’t build real social skills.
In-person play with similarly aged peers is crucial for children to develop social skills. It teaches them how to share, how to assert their needs, and how to respect the needs of others. You might think that with everyone online, children can learn these skills in a digital setting — but they can’t. People just don’t act the way they would in real life when they’re interacting on the internet. They can put on a persona of bravado and become aggressively vitriolic about everything from the best band to a favorite cartoon character. Just think about the way that adults become aggressive about subjects like politics online. Moreover, studies have found that too much screen time for younger children can have adverse effects on their ability to relate to others, follow directions, and avoid negative behaviors like being bossy or disruptive.
#3: Screen time does not help developing minds.
It’s popularly known that brain activity on television is lower than when one is sleeping. But you may not be so convinced that technology isn’t needed in education today. If you have any doubt about how the intellectual movers and shakers of our economy feel about screen time, take a look at the CEOs in Big Tech. Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai (of Google), and the late Steve Jobs are just a few of the many tech gurus who severely limit the screen time of their kids and credit their own success to growing up without it. Many of the biggest names in Silicon Valley send their kids to a school with no computers. The Waldorf School (which operates nationally) believes in hands-on work that emphasizes creativity, believing that screen time curtails attention spans, inhibits creative thinking, and delays interpersonal development. Waldorf classrooms are quite a throwback with chalkboards, wooden desks, encyclopedias, notebooks, and (gasp) pencils.
#4: Screen time can undermine delayed gratification.
Traditional games and activities that kids have enjoyed outside of screen time involve delayed gratification. It takes hard work and patience to build a LEGO pirate ship or obtain your next belt in Karate. Video games, which have become a ubiquitous form of entertainment for kids and adults alike, do not really foster the ability to wait for good things. Bright colors, loud noises, and an incessant stream of instant reactions to the moves of a controlled character populate the world depicted in most video games, especially the colorful pop games marketed to young children (I myself have spent countless hours chained to the bright colorful explosions of Candy Crush).
#5: Screen time does not teach how to make positive choices.
Recent studies have also examined the negative effects of violence in some games. In recent years, we have shaken our heads at the increased number of school shootings, church shootings, and mall shootings that plague America. Is it any wonder that these unfortunate events occur in a society where blasting heads open literally means nothing? On a less extreme and more local level, aggressive games have been linked to an increase in aggressive behaviors. Screen time can also put information in front of your children that you’d rather not have them see. They can be exposed to damaging scenes of violence, ideologies you don’t want them to resonate with, or sexualized content. Though it’s problematic with both genders, exposing young girls to sexually charged content at too young of an age can decrease confidence and self-esteem while leading to more serious mental health issues like eating disorders, anxiety, and even depression. Unfortunately you cannot really supervise everything your kids see when they have their own screens.
#6: Screen time takes kids and parents away from connecting.
There are steps you can take steps to mitigate some of the dangers of screen time, such as keeping a house computer in a shared space like a living room, and going against the societal grain and not buying your prepubescent child a smartphone (I know that one is hard, especially if you have girls). And yes, they do still sell cell phones that are just cell phones, if you are concerned for their safety and want them to be reachable.
But in addition to all these outline dangers, there is one underlying concern that I think is the most damaging part of too much screen time: it separates us from our kids.
Children need their parents for a variety of reasons like food, shelter, clothing, education, and developing social awareness. But children also need their parents to create a secure bond of attachment. Not one that is overly controlling and perhaps anxiety-ridden, but one that can’t be developed by a checked-out parent — or one who lets their kids have too much screen time.
There are simple things you can do in your home to create a stronger connection to your kids. You can mandate a dinner together rule with no screens allowed, for example (this is something Steve Jobs used to do). You can have a house rule that all screens go off at 9:00 PM.
But aside from strategies like these, the main thing you can do is lead by example. You can turn off your own phone and put it away when you come home. You can read a book instead of watching TV. And you can make more of an effort for at least one parent to spend some quality, no-screen time with your kids, whether that involves cooking dinner together, playing a board game, or even doing some mundane errand like running to the supermarket.
These efforts to build real bonds of human connection will pay off immeasurably with your children. You’ll have fewer issues with discipline — their choices will come less from the fear of punishment and more from a genuine desire to make you happy. You’ll see increased social skills, less aggression, more innocence, longer attention spans, and be less concerned generally about who they’re interacting with.
Don’t get me wrong…our own home is not screen free. Though our kids don’t play video games (they’re all about DUPLO blocks) they do love watching Fireman Sam on YouTube. But in general, we try to limit their screen time, and ours; there is no actual TV screen in our home, and we’re better off for it, honestly.
Though our generation isn’t old enough yet to see the long term effects of so much screen time, I think that parents who limit screen time and emphasize more human connection will see the rewards later in life. If you’re one of those parents, I think you will see that your adult children retain a stronger bond with you — something that a lot of grown parents wish their own kids would do.
Remember the story of the nightingale, and remember that when the chips are really down, it’s the real live bird that brings life and pushes away death. One day, when you are that Emperor in the twilight years of life, you’ll be happy that the nightingale in the woods comes back to you.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto.com