Cincinnati Children's Blog

Digital Life, Childhood and Pediatrics – Apologies to Norman Rockwell

Were he alive today, one might wonder how Norman Rockwell would portray childhood in a world increasingly obsessed with digital media.

Maybe Mr. Rockwell’s images would be of kids wearing earplugs hooked to iPods, cell phones in hand, their fingers furiously texting, sitting in front of a computer and playing video games. Not one at a time, mind you, but all at the same time.

Or maybe he would portray children texting each other around the dinner table and giggling as grandfather carves the holiday turkey or as texting teens drive down the interstate.

Digital communications have changed our world and childhood as we know it. Some has been for the better, although a great deal of the change is hurting kids in very dramatic or even tragic ways, according to Dr. Gwen O’Keefe MD, chief executive and editor in chief of Pediatrics Now.

In a recent presentation during Pediatric Grand Rounds – part of the Continuing Medical Education program at Cincinnati Children’s – O’Keefe encouraged pediatricians and other medical professionals to become “better and smarter advocates for kids” whose lives are bombarded with digital devices and communications. In an age of cyber bullying, cyber stalking, cyber sexting and so on, current events demonstrate clearly that society’s failure to get a handle on assimilation by digital media can have tragic consequences.

Consider that the digital footprint of a child doesn’t necessarily start with that first fledgling encounter with DVD, a video game, the first cell phone or social media account. In today’s world, O’Keefe says some children encounter Facebook before they are even born, when expecting parents post ultrasound images of their developing bundle of joy. It’s potentially dangerous and also has privacy implications, she warns.

Then there is the issue of too much “screen time” for children under the age of 2 years, when a program or DVD on the television or computer becomes the baby sitter of convenience. There is also an app you can get for an iPad that allows a young child to play with virtual blocks, instead of having a pile of real blocks in front of them. The low tech version engages all of a child’s senses as they explore and learn – the newer version not so much.

Like many issues involving children – who learn behaviors and tasks gradually over time – using digital media is much like any other developmental issue, says O’Keefe, who has published research on the topic in the journal Pediatrics. And it’s one that pediatricians – who use digital technology extensively – should learn to grasp and address in their practices. This includes figuring out how to utilize modern digital technology to help families with this and similar issues, including coaching families on appropriate social media usage, age-appropriate activities, etc.

O’Keefe says the best advice pediatricians can give families is to get children to unplug more frequently so they will use all their senses, their imaginations and interact with real people more frequently. Rather than give a child iPad with a “blocks” app, it’s better to give the child a pile of real blocks. Again, it involves learning with all of the senses engaged instead of a few.

Another bit of advice for adults is to remember that kids learn from our behaviors, and a lot of the bad habits they pick up – including those involving digital devices – they learned by watching us.

Dr. O’Keefe’s Pediatric Grand Rounds presentation is eye-opening and you can watch it, via digital media, by clicking here.


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