(This post was co-written with Joanna Silverman, a good friend and a long-term educator who specializes in children’s social and emotional development.)
It seems like almost every other week the ante around our children and the screen technologies gets raised. The most recent incident involved an Internet hoax known as “The Momo Suicide Challenge;” an outrageous and fictionalized viral legend purported to be encouraging young children to kill themselves via a maniacal-looking doll face that supposedly popped up unbidden in the middle of children’s shows.
As women who have been critically looking at the ways that screen use impacts the emotional, social, mental and physical development of children for years, there is a sad irony being played out here. Worried parents are posting all over social media about the dangers of this made-up scourge. The news has covered it. Schools and pediatrician offices have made public service announcements to encourage parents to monitor their children online; warning them of the possible dangers.The irony begins to reveal itself here when we are willing to notice that all of this frenzied activity goes on while we often miss the most obvious of all the culprits around our children and the hazards of being online.
While we both appreciate the fear that this has raised in so many families, we are left wondering why there is not such an outpouring around the very real dangers our children face each and every day. Dangers, by the way, which we willingly allow them to be exposed to. But because they do not initially or obviously present as menacing, or because we have come to rely so heavily on the screens as entertainers, friends and babysitters for our children, we do not notice. More to the point, we do not want to notice. For to do so would require work; a kind of work that far exceeds posting a warning to other parents via social media. A kind of work that might go unnoticed, and would certainly garners no “likes.”
For starters, what about the daily erosions to our children’s innocence as they watch content that is far too mature for their age. Examples of this abound and are most noticeably played out in the hyper-sexualization of our girls at younger and younger ages. And because we are a culture that has become perilously accustomed to the use of violence as entertainment, our boys are daily killing, maiming and torturing others in their “games.” Even when we say it is disturbing and that we do not like it, we merely shake our heads. But we don’t stop it.
Because the “dangers” to low self-esteem and poor body image do not have a gruesome face that can be easily posted in a way to make a parent’s blood boil, we let that one go. Even though how our children feel about themselves will inform every single thing that they do for the rest of their lives; their relationships, work satisfaction, health, happiness, and more. And what about their precious little bodies that require movement for them to be healthy in body and mind, but that we have somehow decided must not be that important as we put them in front of screens where they sit hunched and motionless. Literally frozen within themselves.
And even with the bigger issues like the link between anxiety (the leading mental health issue among our children) and the introduction of cell phones and social media with our kids, who is posting to start a movement on this one? Who is starting a campaign around the rise in self-harming behaviors among our children linked to screen use? Who is demanding public service announcements around eating disorders that are fueled by sites supporting and encouraging this behavior? And who’s post about the losses in childhood due to sleep deprivation, academic and behavior problems linked to screen use has gone viral?
If we were being honest, and if we were willing to look more closely, we would come to see that what we are saying yes to every day is far more likely to damage our children than any disfigured face.
Truly, the baddest boogey man of all can be found in the very things we are saying yes to on a regular basis. The very things that our children spend hours and hours each day doing with a screen. And yet, we do nothing. Why is this? Why are we so quick to push the panic button on a hoax, while we sit by watching the demise of childhood? Unfortunately, this says everything about us, and nothing about the ones who perpetrate such hoaxes. You see, we are ripe for the picking here. For in these rare and exaggerated moments we get to rise up, indignant, against the injustices being inflicted upon our children. Simultaneously, we get to keep doing what we are doing. No change required. No discomfort called for. And we get to give ourselves the congratulatory luxury of feeling as though we have really done something because we have posted something.
So the ante has certainly been raised. Again. And while it would be easy to make extreme occurrences the focus, what if we made the focus us? What if we got real with ourselves around why it is that we keep turning our children over to something that is not good, safe, or worthy of their childhood? What if the real culprit here is all that we are ignoring?