Keep toddlers unplugged

Here in the Digital Age, a recent Associated Press article cheerily informed readers that “Toddlers take selfies, too.” Well, the ones with access to a smartphone do, anyway. Otherwise, a simple mirror holds the same fascination for a toddler.

Of course, an early introduction to electronics simply prepares the toddler for what is to come. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that today’s children spend an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. Seven hours!? In a 2011 survey, 90 percent of parents said their children under age 2 watch some form of electronic media. On average, children this age watch televised programs one to two hours per day. By age 3, almost one third of children have a television in their bedroom.

The academy discourages any electronic use for children under age 2, and limited use for children 2 and above. Among key findings from the survey: 1. Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.

2. Young children learn best from — and need — interaction with humans, not screens.

A Northwest pediatrician and mother, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, profiled in Tuesday’s Herald by reporter Andrea Brown, has embraced social media as a way to educate and communicate with the parents of her patients — allowing her to help many more people than if she were only taking appointments. Swanson, director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is known by thousands of online followers as SeattleMamaDoc, which ranked in TIME Magazine’s Best Twitter Feeds of 2013. (She also still sees patients one day a week the Everett Clinic Mill Creek, where she started her career.)

Swanson got the spark to become a “digital doctor” while on bedrest during her second pregnancy; it was not taking selfies as a toddler. Her sons, 5 and 7, do not play with gadgets.

Swanson’s social media and medical bona fides no doubt resonate with the new generation of digital-age parents out there. So hopefully they take her at her word (or Tweet or blog post) when she advises: You don’t need to buy a lot of things to raise a healthy, bright child. What they need is attentiveness, interaction and play.

Swanson and other pediatricians aren’t judging parents; they are just reassuring them that their children will be plenty tech savvy even if they don’t take selfies as toddlers. But they may miss out on imaginative fun and delaying gratification if introduced to gadgets too early.

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