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'Cell-phone babysitters'

By M.V. Moorhead

June 10, 2006

A friend of mine often complains about what he calls “cell-phone babysitters.” Disturbed by the sight of children of 12, or even younger, spending hours unsupervised in malls or other public places, around potentially harmful influences, he rails against the parental attitude, “It’s OK; he has a cell phone.”

At first I thought this concern was principally with child safety, and that a counterargument could be made. After all, when I was a kid—back in the age of the dinosaurs—I often spent hours on my own or with friends, sometimes without so much as a dime for a phone call.

Today, mom and dad can program their phone numbers onto their kid's speed-dial buttons, and satellites can track a phone's GPS signal practically anywhere on earth. Couldn’t it be argued that cell phones are a powerful tool for keeping children safe?

It took me a while to understand that what bothered my friend wasn’t the cell phone for kids per se, but the use of it as a replacement for vigilant and personal parenting. The issue was summarized with chilling concision by Malcolm Gladwell, in the afterword of the paperback edition of his remarkable book The Tipping Point:

“We have given teens more money, so they can construct their own social and material worlds more easily. We have given them more time to spend among themselves—and less time in the company of adults. We have given them e-mail and beepers and, most of all, cellular phones, so that they can fill in all the dead spots in their day—dead spots that might once have been filled with then voices of adults—with the voices of their peers. That is a world ruled by the logic of word of mouth, by the contagious messages that teens pass among themselves.”

When I discussed the matter with Kyrene Corridor psychologist Neil Weiner, he told me that the concern is not only valid, it goes considerably beyond the realm of cell phones.

“I think it’s worse than you think,” says Weiner, an Arizona State graduate whose practice includes families, children and teenagers. Cell phones, he insists, are just one of the devices that are swiftly insulating children and youths—among other groups—from direct social contact with their parents, their friends, their fellow human beings in general.

Some of the other culprits?

“We’ve got the TV,” says Weiner. “We’ve got iPods, which from what I read are causing deafness at a record rate. If it’s loud enough that you can hear it [when it’s in your kid’s ears], it’s too loud. It used to be that when your kid said, ‘What did you say?’, it meant that he wasn’t listening to you. Now it means that he really can’t hear you.”

Some of the dangers computers pose, like inappropriate online relationships and exposure to predators, have been well documented. Others are only now gaining notice.

“Kids are being left with computers, and quite a few of them are developing ADHD,” notes Weiner. “When kids are not parked electronically they get antsy. Insomnia is getting to be a problem for kids. A lot of them have trouble sleeping without a TV or radio on, because they’ve gotten so used to constant electronic stimulation.”

But Weiner is quick to point that it isn’t only psychological well-being and social skills that are affected. Along with the aforementioned impact on hearing, the sedentary, “electronically parked” lifestyle is also giving rise to record obesity, diabetes and other health troubles. And it’s starting sooner all the time: Weiner is particularly appalled at the appearance of the BabyFirstTV, a new cable channel with programming aimed specifically at infants.

Weiner is a consultant with Get Psyched!, a new store run by his wife, Lettie. “The concept is to take mental health into the community,” says Weiner, who says that the store, located at 1709 E. Guadalupe Road, Tempe is organized into four tracks of products and services—everything from books to seminars for the general public, continuing education for therapists, an institute to teach parenting skills, and an alternative healing department.

So if, say, in honor of Father’s Day, a parent wanted to counteract some of these electronic trends with his or her own children, what would be Weiner’s advice?

“Turn off as many things as possible,” he says. “Have dinner with your kids, sit down with them to do their homework, tell stories, tell them family history.”
And finally, simply: “Hold your kids.”

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