We need to focus on quality time, not screen time. Picture: iStock
We need to focus on quality time, not screen time. Picture: iStock

Beware the digital zombie generation

WHEN you see a baby in a pram fitted with an iPad you just know the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

What is wrong with letting your child experience all the exciting colours and sounds and smells of the world passing by? Or even, perish the thought, the loving gaze and chit chat of mum or dad as the pram trundles along. No such luck. We're all too "busy".

But the results of doing such are starting to come in, and depriving tiny tots of the interactions with a parent that their brains need to develop is putting us on the path to educational catastrophe.

Literacy experts and paediatricians are now warning that Australian children's speech and language skills are the worst they have ever been in our history. And there's no more shocking indictment of a wealthy nation.

"This is a national crisis and it is the worst it has ever been," said Angela Morgan, head of speech and language at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in a report released last weekend.

"We will see more children who will be unable to complete basic tasks like reading the instructions to put together a barbecue or even read their medicines."

A bit of screen time is okay, but researchers are starting to see the adverse side-effects of too much. Picture: iStock
A bit of screen time is okay, but researchers are starting to see the adverse side-effects of too much. Picture: iStock

She was too polite to point the finger at parents, suggesting instead that a speech pathologist should be installed in every school. But that's closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted. And it does nothing to inform distracted about parents how important eye contact and talking time is for their baby's developing brain.

The research is incontrovertible that a video on a screen is no substitute for mum or dad's undivided attention.

For example, University of Cambridge researchers reported in 2017 that when a parent makes eye contact with a baby it causes both brains to synchronise, which helps boost the child's communication and learning skills.

This "brainwave synchronisation isn't just due to seeing a face or finding something interesting, but about sharing an intention to communicate," lead author Victoria Leong told Neuroscience News.

"Infants made a greater effort to communicate, making more 'vocalisations', when the adult made direct eye contact … This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective," she continued.

Our lack of interaction is having an adverse reaction on children’s development. Picture: iStock
Our lack of interaction is having an adverse reaction on children’s development. Picture: iStock

Speech, language, concentration skills and empathy begin in the developing brain from birth. The neurons in babies' brains are creating a thousand new connections every second. Why waste that on a screen?

Glendenning Public School principal Doug Meaney is one educator who is trying to spread the word. Last year he issued a warning to parents in the school newsletter about the latest crop of kindergarten students he says are arriving at school with "poor talking skills" because they've been deprived of communication with mum and dad.

"The other day I saw a pram with a mum walking her child - the mum had earphones in and the child was watching a DVD on the iPad. Before iPads and iPods, mums would talk to children when walking them. Can you give your child 'talking time' today?" he asked.

Similar warnings came from 76-year-old paediatrician Dr Suzanne Packer when she was crowned 2019 Senior Australian of the Year in January.

She warned of the consequences of "emotional neglect" of children.

"We seem to be getting busier and busier and more over-committed in our lives. Emotional neglect can be a real problem across all strata of society."

Many young Australian children are no longer meeting their milestones, in part due to too much screen time. Picture: iStock image
Many young Australian children are no longer meeting their milestones, in part due to too much screen time. Picture: iStock image

"There is a definite increase in the reporting of mental health problems in young children and I wonder how much of this might be associated with our very different living styles [since she started her career] and more difficulty for children being able to feel close and comfortable with their parents".

She described "pure gold" interactions "with adult and child participating equally."

"It can be anything and everything from giggling with a baby to working on a project with children as full participants."

In international comparisons, Packer says "by current measures our Australian children are not doing as well as they should".

The warnings come as Australian children continue to plummet down international rankings in reading, writing and numeracy, while politicians chasing votes have few answers other than throwing more cash on top of the 40 per cent of additional funding for education over the past decade. But all we've seen is student results inversely proportional to funding. Even Kazakhstan does better.

More money clearly is not the answer. But a good start is for parents actually to be parents.

Take delight in your children instead of shoving them in iPad-equipped prams to become digital zombies before they even can walk.

@mirandadevine