Kids face digital dangers, but parents can help

The Acorn

October 12, 2017

Children, some as young as 4 or 5, are being raised on a diet of media, and experts say that it’s up to parents to control how much and what kind of content is digested by youngsters and teens.

A panel of experts discussed the changing world of media and what it means to the developing minds of children at a program hosted by Common Sense Kids Action and First 5 Ventura County, both advocacy groups.

State Sen. Henry Stern; Yalda Uhls of Common Sense Media in Los Angeles; Petra Puls, executive director of First 5 Ventura County; and Craig Cheslog, codirector of Common Sense Kids Action, participated in the town hall-style meeting called “Raising Kids in the Digital Age” on Sept. 19 at Sumac Elementary School in Agoura Hills.

According to Cheslog, California students are not faring well. He said the state has the fifth worst standard of living in the nation and children are experiencing achievement gaps before they even get to kindergarten due to “toxic stress,” some of which is exacerbated by an inundation of technology.

Puls told parents that balancing time in front of a screen with actual face-to-face time with friends and family was critical. First 5, she said, has been using portions of California’s tobacco tax to support early childhood development to ensure that children are ready to learn by the time they start kindergarten. The work, she said, is not just focused on children, but on parenting, families and entire communities.

In Uhls’ book, “Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age,” she explores how too much social media is harming kids. For instance, childhood experiences—good and bad— between the ages of 3 and 5 have lifelong impacts. Drug abuse, obesity and “prolonged, profound stress” have been traced to early childhood experiences. Social media, she said, sometimes amps normal stress to a toxic level that compounds problems. Parents, she says, have the ability to help children cope by reducing their exposure to inappropriate programming in all media.

Stern said that, on average, children under the age of 5 spend 10 hours per day in front of some kind of screen, whether it’s a computer, television, tablet or phone.

He said obesity has been attributed to children being glued to technology rather than moving their bodies through play. What is being peddled on video games and other media may blur what is fantasy and what is reality, he added.

“Youth issues span the gamut,” Stern said, adding that media fuels the threats to kids. Marijuana use, especially edibles that are brightly labeled, some with kid-friendly animals or cartoons, put kids at risk. Human trafficking and other societal ills all have a digital connection.

“We think these things aren’t happening here, but they do,” Stern said in regard to a human trafficking ring that was recently broken up in Ventura with enslaved women from Thousand Oaks and Oxnard.

Stern believes there are some legislative solutions for the tech age. For instance, he introduced SB 596, a bill that, if signed by Gov. Brown, will establish the Student Empowerment Commission program in public schools that would allow students to have a voice in public policy issues through regional and statewide conferences.

Student access to policy development would be “real,” Stern said, unlike programs like Model U.N. and Youth and Government that provide forums that simulate governmental processes but don’t actually have any clout.

Spying dolls

Stern and other members of the panel discussed a recent controversy over a doll named Cayla.

Stern called the My Friend Cayla toy an “evil little doll” that clandestinely records children and transmits personal data about kids to manufacturers.

To function, the doll must be activated by an app and a Blue-tooth connection so it can reasonably respond to children’s musings or questions. Various media reports say that the doll also records bits of what children say and transmits the information to a speech recognition company, whose clients include military and intelligence firms. The suspicion is that toy manufacturers are gathering information to target children in future marketing campaigns.

Stern said that a bill limiting such toy manufacturing practices is stalled in the Senate.

What’s a parent to do?

“California is the fifth largest economy (in the world). We move markets,” Stern said, implying that California has and will continue to establish common sense rules on how media should be addressed. In all, Stern has introduced 27 bills related to children’s issues.

Uhls said that the iPhone changed the world and the use of smartphones is “aging down, younger and younger.” As for technology in toys, she believes that video games pose a threat to children because kids “don’t learn anything from a video screen.”

But technology is not inherently bad, Uhls said.

“You have to think more about content,” she said, advising parents to check out children’s video game ratings on the website

She said that time in front of a screen mattered less than the content and context of what children are experiencing. Interactive games, like Bedtime Math, which can be accessed via a phone app, is appropriate for young children.

She said it all comes down to a balancing act. Children need to engage in physical and social activity as much as, if not more than, playing games on computers or phones.

“Nothing trumps face-to-face time” between young children and adults, she said.

Puls went a step further and talked about the research that shows singing, talking and reading to a child before birth has shown improved readiness for learning.

“The brain builds on early experiences,” she said.

The achievement gap is being studied in Ventura County. About one-third of children in kindergarten in Ventura County are starting school “behind the 8-ball,” Puls said.

“Talking, reading and singing with children from birth becomes normal, like crossing the street and looking both ways. It’s not about the reading, it’s about the interaction.”

She said parents should talk to their kids often—read from cereal boxes, point out colors and shapes in the grocery store.

Uhls agreed.

“Read all the time, not just at bedtime.”