Children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens, and an “app gap” is emerging between children in affluent and low-income households, a new study found.
“What brings Amelia in to the office today?” I ask her father. He sits in the chair by the sink in the exam room, moving a stroller back and forth with his foot. The stroller houses Amelia’s 2-year-old sister, who snoozes contentedly in the seat.
“Amelia has a sore throat,” her father explains. “Her mother thinks she should be checked out before the party this afternoon. Today is Amelia’s birthday.”
“So it is!” I exclaim, glancing at her chart. “Well, let’s have a look.”
Amelia sits on the exam table in a pretty new dress. Pink sparkling shoes adorn her dangling feet. At my request she opens her mouth wide and sticks out her tongue. If anything, the throat is minimally injected. A few non-tender nodes are palpable in her neck. There is no fever. Overall, she seems well.
“My wife asked for a strep test,” her father says. “We’re hosting eight kids at the house later today, and we don’t want to get anyone sick with strep throat.”
“I understand.” I reach for a cotton-tipped swab and stroke the back of Amelia’s throat. She gags a bit, but recovers fine. “I’ll be back in five minutes,” I say, pulling the exam room door closed behind me.
The test is negative, of course. I knew that before I ran it, but these days a laboratory test carries more weight than the medical opinion of a seasoned clinician.
“No strep,” I tell the father as I step back into the exam room. “Amelia can have her birthday party as planned.”
“Good,” he says. “Amelia, tell the doctor what you got for your birthday.”
Amelia’s face lights up. “An iPod!” she says.
“An iPod?” Involuntarily, I’m caught up short. An iPod for a 4-year-old?
“She’s always playing with our iPhones,” the father says. “She’s gotten the hang of a few of the games. We figure it’s never too early to introduce kids to the touch screen. She’ll be that much further ahead when she starts kindergarten next year.”
The next day I glimpse a headline in the New York Times: Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children. The article carries the photograph of a 3-year-old boy playing with an iPad. I let my eyes drift down over the lines of type. Evidently, this boy’s 1-year-old sibling has gotten into the act as well. “It beats the hell out of sitting and watching television,” their father explains.
Recently, I had the opportunity to view the 1979 film “Being There” for the first time. Peter Sellers plays the lead character Chance, the gardener, a grown man who has spent his entire life within the four walls of his elderly benefactor’s house. When he is not working in the courtyard garden, Chance is watching TV. He spends most of his waking hours channel surfing through shows as varied as Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, cartoons, commercials and the nightly news. His TV addiction is so complete that when he’s cast out into the street after his benefactor’s death, Chance attempts to disburse a gang of switchblade-waving delinquents by clicking his remote. “This is just like television, only you can see much further,” he says.
“Being There” poses other themes besides TV addiction. Yet it seems as though we have taken little heed to such warnings. Indeed, we have seen fit to hand such addictions down to subsequent generations in the form of all sorts of wireless devices, most of which sport a screen, some of which can be stroked with a finger, almost like pocket mirrors set before our eyes in which an astute observer might glimpse the folly of our contemporary lives.