Virtual Nation

Living across the country from my family, I have loved the new technologies that allow us to stay in touch. Using Skype or Face-time, in between visits home, I am able to see my nephews as they learn to walk, talk and recite the ABCs. Last year, during one such online exchange, my nephew pointed to my face on the screen and said, “Aunt Audrey!” He then climbed up onto the desk, obscuring my view as his body pressed against the computer’s camera.  When I asked what he was up to, my sister informed he that was looking for me behind the computer!

As a pediatrician, I see hand-held computer and mobile devices in the hands of an ever-younger population and I can’t help but wonder what kind of effect the rapid advances in technology are having on these developing minds. Are the lessons of object permanence changing for my nephew as he is able to interact with a virtual “Aunt Audrey?”

Certainly, technologic advances are amazing and are doing wonderful things for the advancement of society, but I just can’t help but get the sense that we are pushing ever closer to a brave new world. The YouTube video showing a toddler sliding his index finger across a magazine page – trying to change the image as you would on any number of touch-pad devices- is cute on the surface. But it becomes somewhat disconcerting when I think about what lessons this child is learning about how to interact with his environment.

Admittedly, hand-held computer devices have made the pediatrician’s job easier! To quiet an upset child, all a parent needs is their cell-phone uploaded with Dora the Explorer and – voila! – the physical exam is over in a cinch.  Nowadays computers are at the center of medicine, business, communication… life.  How are our brains changing as we lose touch with the tangible world and lose ourselves in the virtual?

Growing up, I had my fair share of “screen-time,” playing Klondike, Duck Hunt and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego on my parents’ desktop computer. But still, the vast majority of the time, I spent playing outdoors in the tree-house, in the sandbox or riding my bike. I spent entire afternoons playing imaginary games with my sister and brother. We dressed in costumes and put on shows. We played on the porch and pretended it was a ship, lost out at sea.  Perhaps I am simply feeling nostalgic.

It’s likely that these newer versions of “screen time” are no less dangerous or harmful than their predecessors: the radio, TV, computer and video game console. As with all things, moderation is the key. As a pediatrician, I counsel families that children should have no more that 2 hours of total “screen time” per day. What rules do you have about technology in your family? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Published on: June 07, 2012
About the Author
Photo of Audrey Hall MD

Dr. Audrey Hall is in her final year of pediatric residency training at Stanford University. Following completion of training, she plans to practice as a general pediatrician.

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