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Dave Tayloe article: Screen-Free Week: Letís Focus on Children and the Economy

Posted: 05/10/2012

April 30-May 6 has been designated “Screen-Free Week.”  At this time, adults are spending so much time with smart phones, i-Pads, computers, and televisions (screens) that many of our children are failing to experience normal language development.  And if children are not able to talk and read effectively by third grade, they are likely to drop out of school and never become real contributors to our economy.

We have put a man on the moon, transplanted human hearts, and can communicate instantly with people all over the globe.  But we cannot raise healthy, productive children!  What is going on?

Pediatricians are trying to do something about the facts that 35% of five-year-olds do not have age-appropriate language skills, one-third of third grade students are not reading at grade level, and over 25% of students do not graduate from high school.  In our pediatric practice, our professional staff communicate with parents in competition with cell phone, i-Pad, and video game activity in the exam room.   I think our experience explains a lot about what is causing lousy child outcomes.  And if we have lousy child outcomes, we will have an inept work force, and our economy will never reach its full potential.

Many adults are so wrapped up in their smart phones, i-Pads, computers, video games, and televisions that they are not providing babies and young children with the face-to-face talking time they need to achieve optimal language development.  Plus, American children average about 7 hours of screen time each day.  This means that adults are not spending enough time interacting with their children, causing many children to have delays in language development and failure to achieve optimal third grade reading skills.  Third grade reading performance determines high school graduation rates. 

 All this fits together, and the trends are really alarming.

 Our approach to this bothersome scenario is to begin a conversation with parents, from the time of conception, about the importance of face-to-face talking with babies and preschool children, encouraging parents to turn off all their screens whenever their babies and young children are awake. 

 I am not anti-technology.  But I know that children who do not have good language and reading skills are not likely to take full advantage of technology, and are therefore not likely to become productive members of our workforce. 

 Children figure out how to talk by watching their parents talk, close-up, face to face.  They need to see what their parents are talking about, hear their parents talk, and see their parents talk.  Vocabulary at age 2 years determines first grade performance.  Children, as soon as possible, need to participate in reading activities.  Parents should read to their children for at least one-half hour a day as soon as their babies are sitting without support, usually around 6 months of age.  As the children begin reading in preschool, parents need to listen to their children read every day at home, at least until they know their children have achieved third grade reading skills.  Through our Reach Out and Read Program, we provide age- and culturally-appropriate new books for all children at all check-ups between 6 months and 5 years of age.

 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under 2 years old, no more than 2 hours of screen time daily for children over the age of two years, and no TV in any child’s bedroom.

 Needless to say, pediatricians’ advice to parents often falls upon deaf ears, or ears that are too consumed by technology that they never really hear the advice of their pediatricians.  It is sad that all this marvelous technology is contributing to the downfall of our youngest children, before they have time to develop the language and reading skills necessary to really take advantage of technology.  And they are developing really harmful eating habits while they are active preschoolers, making it almost natural for them to become overweight/obese as they become middle school couch potatoes who are addicted to their technology.

 Some might say that quality preschool experiences will reverse these trends.  This is unlikely, since only about one-third of our at-risk preschool children have access to preschool.  Plus, we can predict school performance from vocabulary at age 2 years, well before many children enter preschool.  Adult caretakers must focus on early language development as early as possible in the children’s lives, IF we are to do something about our embarrassing statistics.

 It will take a community-wide effort to reverse these extremely bothersome trends that are pervasive in our families.  Pediatricians are willing to continue the good fight, but we need for all families in the community to turn off their screens and focus on the early language development of our children IF Wayne County hopes to have a workforce that is healthy and skillful enough to assure a bright economic future for us all.

 David T. Tayloe, Jr., MD, FAAP

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