Smartphones and tablets are the subject of ongoing research and discussion in terms of the risks and benefits that they provide. When it comes to children’s relationships with personal screen time, my experience is that the conversation can get even more heated.

Like any subject around parenting, opinions abound and the camp lines seem to be starkly drawn. A point of personal evolution for me has been in relationship to my own parenting opinions, as life circumstances have compelled me in various ways to make choices that fall outside of my preexisting beliefs.

I have chosen not to own a television and have never been much of a technophile. While I had a cell phone for several years before, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I got my first smartphone. To stem the influx of gadgetry in our lives via gifts and hand-me-downs, I set a long-term guideline when my first child was born: No plastic, no batteries. (Despite that value set, getting a smartphone has had the same effect on me as it does with most people: I check it too often, I look at it before I go to sleep, and without measures to counteract the temptation I can easily feel way too plugged in.)

My children are older and their infancy and toddler years came before the screen wave. There weren’t smartphones and tablets — at least not outside the pockets of the business crowd who were hyped about their brand new Blackberry devices. As this personal technology entered the mainstream, I saw the rise of children out in the world attached to these devices. At first, my reaction was negative. The not MY children mindset isn’t one that I’m proud of but it was definitely at play here. I recall being out at a performance and seeing a child — maybe 7 or 8 years old — wearing headphones and interacting with a small screen. I had an onslaught of judgmental thoughts, criticizing from afar and feeling saddened that this kid was plugged in rather than participating in real life happening all around them.

Over time, I got a lesson in diversity that has changed my perspective and almost silenced that critical voice: I got to know a young person with sensory processing disorder. Some people who are affected by this condition where the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses, are oversensitive to stimuli in their environment. Common sounds can be painful or overwhelming. Crowd energy can create this overwhelm as well and people who navigate the world with this kind of sensory experience can be high introverts. There are in fact numerous ways of being human that can create a similar experience of extreme overwhelm to the world around us, from brain injury to being on the autism spectrum.

It turns out that having a single, controllable point of focus can be a tool that makes family time out in the world more possible. The ability for a child to tune out the chaos of their environments can allow them to recharge and be part of events and activities that may otherwise be too overwhelming. A child may want to be present to support a loved one at a performance, but cannot make it through the whole thing without melting down. This child being able to retreat into the focus of a smartphone can allow the whole family to stay and support the performance, and for the child to be a part of this activity. Imagine trying to travel or to plan a vacation together around these sensory needs if you couldn’t offer this tool to help your child manage their overwhelming environment.

By now, surely we all have at least some idea that there are costs that go along with the benefits our devices provide us. It’s so important that we take the time to understand what happens to the minds and behaviours of kids when they have access to smartphones and other personal screen technology. Education will allow us to make the decisions that take best care of our children and families.

However, when we’re making our observations of the world around us, let’s remember that we can rarely assess a situation just by looking at it. For the children whose screen time acts as this kind of therapeutic tool, connection and quality family time actually come within reach, and who would ever want to judge that?

Image courtesy of StockSnap

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