Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Switched on, baby

Screened time
When you enter the world of parenting, you inherit a tiny squirming human, an unrecoverable sleep debt and a very long list of things you should never, ever do.

Never leave the baby sitting in a wet nappy, never take the baby outside without socks, never leave the baby to cry themselves to sleep, never let the baby fall asleep with a bottle, never let the baby get their finger stuck in their pram buckle, never let the baby suck your car keys, never let the baby watch the television ...

This morning, while the baby was submerged deep within her breakfast breastfeed, I broke the television rule: I flicked on the TV to watch a stored episode of some-drama-or-another.

Morning television is as rare as folded laundry in our house - and if you could see the mountainous pile of laundry growing out of the disused bassinet in my bedroom right now you would understand exactly how rare that is. But rare does not mean never, and this morning, my husband was out on a public holiday surfing safari and I was suckered in by the promise of adults speaking and some visual stimulation to keep me awake until nap time.

My decision to watch a program featuring farm animals and butchery before eating my morning toast was questionable, but the decision to watch the television at all whilst feeding my baby daughter was downright dubious.

Not only was I exposing my baby to the visual delights of soapie blah before she'd even conquered pumpkin mash and toast, I was also exposing her burgeoning little mind to the brain-drain audio and visual gymnastics of the screen.

It is widely (though not universally) accepted that children should not be exposed to television and screens before the age of two; the big old magic box is not magical at all when it comes to understanding and development.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under two take little educational meaning from what they see on the screen, and children under twelve months are not developmentally ready to understand the dialogue of programs or make sense of the narrative story being played out on the screen.

While under-two's may take little meaning from watching the screen, it is possible they may take a mixed bag of unwanted consequences, ranging from less creative play time to trouble falling asleep to issues with behaviour and language.

Little ones can also lose out when their parents get sucked into the screen and out of conversation and focus. It's a relative no-brainer - and perhaps that's the key point - that screens take parents away, even if they are trying their best to multi-task. And while they are distracting mum and dad, the screens also introduce a raft of scratchy visual and audio background noise into the room and the home environment.

There are plenty of interesting and detailed articles floating around cyberspace about the issue of babies and television - if you are a tangential interweb hopper with an extra large coffee break, you might like to try this 2011 article from Wired.com which elaborates upon the AAP report I mentioned before, or this story from Time Healthland about the convenience involved in letting babies watch television.

Of course, the television is not the only screen on the block. While the good old fashioned telly has
become entrenched in society as the traditional 'family' screen and the beating heart of the standard living room, it no longer glows alone in the screen world - it has been joined by an illuminated set of laptop, smart phone and tablet friends.

The creep of these devices is wide spread and growing. For better or worse, and despite my best new mummy intentions, backlit screens have been an omnipresent element in my daughter's reality since her blastocyst days.

Except for the conception part, and the pee-on-a-stick part, and the throwing up every five minutes part, my pregnancy was pretty well marked out and recorded in digital form:  ultrasounds, smart phone photos of ultrasounds, scans sent by email, test results deposited into online drop boxes, electronic health records, computerised fetal heart monitoring.

Her birth was monitored electronically, by a complicated set of whizz-bang electrodes attached to my giant belly and a computer nestled into a corner of the labour room. Minutes after she was born, her daddy snapped several puffy photos of her on his smart phone and her first vital statistics and measurements were tapped straight into a tablet style device hung on a pole next to the crib.

Things were just heating up - or more to the point, loading up. Upon being wheeled into the rockstar maternity suite (luck was on our side that day), the nurse proudly turned the television on and gave me a full tour of the remote control and channel options. The statistics tablet reappeared, along with some fancy hearing testing equipment, my own smart phone and our digital camera.

Back at home, our freshly formed family unit became stuck in a time warp continuum in the lounge room, where we left the music channels playing on the television to preserve our last shreds of sanity and used our tablet to plead with Doctor Google for advice on how to get the baby to sleep, and breastfeed, and sleep, and sleep.

We loaded white noise soundtracks and lullabies on to our laptops, and used the screens to illuminate endless night time nappy changes and milk-spew recovery missions. I watched brilliant documentaries and terrible soapies into the small hours both to stay awake, and because I was awake, and used an app on my phone as a remote control because I lost the one that came with the television set.

Over the last six and half months, I have chased my baby around the bassinet and the floor and the bath tub with my smart phone camera to capture as many significantly insignificant moments as possible, and then catalogued those moments on my laptop and shared some of them by text message and on social media.

I have recorded milestones on my online calendar, and used it to invite (and remind) my husband to attend vaccination and maternal health appointments. I have applied for birth certificates and health records and family health insurance online, and then saved records of my request for records to a big shiny data 'cloud' in the interweb sky.

As standard par for the course, I use my laptop to read the news and rely on my tablet to flip through magazines and play pointless games with impressive graphics. I take my phone everywhere I go like a toddler with a well-worn blankie - it is my alarm clock, my atlas, my calculator, my compass, my public transport timetable, my weather forecaster, and my friend when I am stuck in a queues or awkward social situations. I panic when I can't find it and get terribly anxious if it breaks.

We are so completely immersed in technology that we can barely recognise our involvement with it unless we step back and survey the scene without a screen in the way. Or we panic about watching a television program about offal in the morning time.

I broke the television rule this morning, and I feel bad enough about it to sit down and write a confessional blog post - yet I break the screen rule every single day and barely give it a second thought.

My daughter is part of a whole new generation of techno-connected individuals, and her life will be intrinsically interwoven with gadgets and widgets and an endless cascade of shiny devices and intuitive applications.

I have to get my head out of the data cloud and give her the balance I've lost - and teach her about high welfare foods and offal sausages, and how to play outside on the swing set, and how to sing lullabies to her future daughter instead of downloading them from the internet.

How do you balance technology in your house?

M x

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photo credit: N. Feans via photopin cc


  1. Hi! Stopping by from Mom Bloggers Club. Great blog!
    Have a nice day!

  2. Don't worry, M. They all watch some TV now and then, and they all eat dirt, too. I try to limit both of those, but it's just gonna happen from time to time. :)

    1. Thanks Mamapotamus. The screens I can switch off, but I'm not quite so sure what to do about the dirt! :)

  3. I had a technology meltdown recently. Totally over the screens. I like the idea of screens after the kids are in bed but I've yet to implement that. I think the technology/life balance is an emerging issue.

    1. My meltdown is pending, can't be too far away. I think my daughter's generation will have an awful lot of technology/life issues to sort through, it's a whole new world compared to when I was a kid.

  4. It's such a hard balance isn't it! I find I'm constantly checking my phone and emails... I need to just leave it at home one day and see what happens!! I'm sure the world will keep on turning!

    1. I try so hard to put my phone down ... but I always find myself absent-mindedly picking it back up again just a few minutes later!

  5. I remember going to my child health nurse when my first was 6 months with a long list of queries. She was patient and indulging and went through them all with me but put her hand over mine at the end and said, "it seems huge now, but you'll have plenty more opportunities to mess up in the future and these ones will pale in significance". It was encouraging and daunting at the same time but it has stayed with me none the less. With 2 kids close together I'm definitely guilty of using TV as a babysitter every now and then and the older one (22 months) has taken to trying to swish his finger across everything with a screen :-)

    1. Kids seem to have an amazing affinity with technology - they seem to come out knowing how to turn a phone on and how to operate a tablet! I think most of us have had Telly the Babysitter over to visit from time to time :)

  6. Screens are taking over our world. I think we just need to find a balance there is nothing better then reading words on an actual paper page, I just keep making sure my boys know what a real book is. I have heard of kids trying to turn pages of a book by swiping it with their tiny fingers!

    1. My most treasured possessions are my real paper-and-spine books - nothing beats turning a page and opening and shutting a heavy volume and putting it back on the shelf. Reading time is a big part of our family time and I am determined to make sure that continues!