The new digital reality: why parents and pediatricians may need to rethink their messaging

by Claire McCarthy on June 7, 2011

Claire McCarthy, MD

Recently I went to a Verizon store to upgrade my phone (to an iPhone!). I had my 10-year-old and 5-year-old with me, as my big kids weren’t available for babysitting; this will be quick, I told them.

Of course (in that Murphy’s Law kind of way) it wasn’t quick at all; I had to wait more than twenty minutes for someone to help me. But Natasha and Liam didn’t mind. They went straight to the iPads on display, and navigated them without any help from me. Natasha found a puzzle application and started putting puzzles together. Liam found a drum set application and started making up songs, adding his own lyrics and dance moves.

As I watched them so fully and happily engaged in activities that required concentration and creativity, I thought (as I have so many times): there’s a lot that’s good about digital media.

We pediatricians tend to be very negative about “screens” when we talk with families. We stress the 2-hour limit to help prevent obesity. We warn about Facebook depression, exposure to violence and sex, cyberbullying and online predators. We talk about how texting can keep kids up at night and how video games can contribute to ADHD.

Don’t get me wrong: these are important messages. There are very real risks associated with the internet and media. We need to keep kids healthy and safe; that’s our job as pediatricians and parents. But when we are just negative, we miss two important points:

• It’s not all bad. Children these days literally have the world at their fingertips. In my house, questions don’t go unanswered; when something comes up in a conversation, we Google it (often on someone’s smart phone at the dinner table). They have the ability to connect within seconds with people all over the world, and to learn about lives that are very different from theirs. There are thousands of websites and applications that can teach them anything and everything, from science to writing to sign language.
• For better or worse, digital media is here to stay. This is the reality of our patients’ lives. Whether we like it or not, they are surfing the web (including for health information), communicating via text and Facebook and Twitter, reading and writing blogs, watching and creating video. We can’t turn back the clock.

It’s not unlike when cars were invented. We didn’t insist that everyone keep riding horses. Instead, we created seatbelts and carseats and stoplights and traffic laws. And while it’s true that cars still bring risks and pollution, they also make our lives better and easier in so many ways. We can’t imagine life without them. Already, it’s hard to imagine life without the internet and digital media. They have incredible potential to improve our lives, if managed well.

“It’s hard to imagine life without the internet and digital media. They have incredible potential to improve our lives, if managed well.”

If we are just negative, we may miss the opportunity to inform the discussion. Pediatricians may miss the opportunity to guide children and families in the best uses of technology. Someone else will step in and do it, someone who doesn’t understand child health and development the way pediatricians do. And kids aren’t going to want to talk to their parents about what they are doing online if they think that their parents’ only response will be disapproval.

It’s hard to inform a discussion about something you don’t know about. So pediatricians and parents should explore the Web and see what’s out there. Do health searches; see what pops up. Find sites and applications that you like and can recommend. Talk to kids about how they use technology—learn from them. Check out Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. Consider using social media yourself.

Really, this is about meeting kids where they are, about being relevant in their changing world. It’s about making a difference in the lives of youth today.

And that is undeniably our job as pediatricians and parents.

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