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Distracted Dining: Distracted by technology

In this DD, Nancy rants on tech-distraction for infants

I’m sure I ate a great meal. The food was fresh and homemade; the place was packed and I was hungry. Don’t ask me what I ate though. I don’t have a clue. All I can remember is the techi-distraction the infant beside us was being subjected to. Yes - subjected to. Let me paint the picture for you.

Family comes in to eat. Looks like grandma; mom and dad; maybe a sister and an infant who I’m guessing is around nine months old. Everyone sits down and baby is secured into the high chair. Before anyone is really settled, out pops a small tablet which is plunked right in front of baby. Said baby watches whatever is on the tablet while the adults in the group begin their conversations; ordering; chatting and basically ignoring the baby. What kind of family outing is that?

There is a myriad of research out there on the pros and cons of using a smartphone or iPad to pacify a toddler. This kid was nowhere close to needing to be pacified. He or she never made the slightest inclination that they were unhappy or needed pacifying - they didn’t have a chance. They were appeased before there was anything to be appeased about. The kid seemed happy, quiet, content, calm, peaceful and I didn’t see any need to immediately distract.

The whole time the family was dining, the tablet was running and there was minimal human interaction with the baby. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone in the group even loved the kid or was it just an annoying extension to the family. I almost wanted to reach out and coochie-coo and have some interaction with the kid myself!

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine conclude using a smartphone or iPad to pacify a toddler may impede their ability to learn self-regulation. They already know and understand the adverse effects of television and video on very small children, but society’s understanding of the impact of mobile devices on the pre-school brain is limited. Researchers are warning the use of a tablet or smartphone to divert a child’s attention may be detrimental to ‘their social-emotional development.’ Seeing the total lack of social and or emotional interaction with the baby at the next table leads me to agree with this research. Who am I to argue with the Boston University School of Medicine?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for any kind of desperate diversion when required. I am the parent who on a foggy morning at 5:30am called the public television station to pledge $25 that we couldn’t afford because I was so thankful Sesame Street was on that early.

I totally understand as a last ditch attempt to appease young children, bring out the tablet. My confusion is around using this a device as the predominant method to calm or distract kids, or even worse, immediately entertain them in what should be a social situation - with humans - those that should be loving and nurturing.

All of us need direct human to human interaction. There is expert evidence that children under 30 months cannot learn as well from television and videos as they can from human interaction. I think deep down we know that. Research has found that screen time is no substitute for one-on-one spoken interaction and play to nurture baby's language development. Children need the good old hands-on activities like building blocks. They need social interaction. They need warm fuzzies not cold electronics.

These days, the average age of a child beginning to use a touch-screen device is about 11 months. For many before they can talk, tie their own shoes or read, they have mastered a digital device.

Surprising research shows many parents are now substituting books and the usual baby toys for smartphones. In many cases, parents don’t bring any other distractions for their children except touch screen devices. I was more distracted while dining by the baby watching a tablet than I would have been if I heard some baby noises or grandparentish interaction happening.

There’s a cool program called Vroom that encourages short ‘lessons’ for parents. They are instructed to chat with babies (even prior to babies being able to respond) and play simple games. This stimulates early brain activity and results in everyday times like breakfast, or a meal out in a restaurant as an opportunity to interact. These lessons and activities enrich the family experience and contribute to the social-emotional development of the child. Interaction seems to be an important element of child development. Interaction with those who love them, not touch screen characters.

In technophilic Japan, pediatricians are now reminding mothers and fathers using smartphones as baby pacifiers isn’t such a good idea. They have gone so far as to launch an ad campaign to raise awareness of the perils of handing over the phone to infants to stop them from crying or keep them entertained.

Childhood development experts feel real-world interaction teaches babies and toddlers about cause and effect. They feel smartphones and tablets are a crutch that keep parents from learning how to soothe their kids the old-fashioned, analog way.

As with everything, perhaps we need to find that sense of balance that works for each situation. The temptation is there to entertain a child with a technological device. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, I’m just saying it shouldn’t be the first thing we do in a social situation with a child. Let them be social; let them babble; let them observe their surroundings; let them be loved and when all heck breaks loose - break out the tablet. It’s a great last resort to pacify an inconsolable child, not the first thing to reach for.

Nancy Revie is a Guelph author, motivational speaker, fitness instructor and entertainer. Visit Nancy at Her column appears every other week.