The problem with the digital 'babysitter'

Experts say parents should protect children from the harm of screen time.
Experts say parents should protect children from the harm of screen time.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

PARIS • Should the latest version of the babysitter be banned? Regulators and programme-makers are at odds over whether small kids should be allowed to watch television or use tablets and smartphones.

France urges parents not to allow children under three to watch television while American paediatricians favour a total ban on screen time until at least 18 months.

Ms Carole Bienaime-Besse, a producer-director, has said that overexposing babies and small children to digital devices has become a "public health issue".

"People are realising that screens can cause addiction even among very small children and, in extreme cases, autistic problems, what is called virtual autism," she said.

"Silicon Valley also knows this. There are lots of educational apps for babies, but in the end, the results are counter-productive," she added.

Studies show that "children over-exposed to them are the ones who find it hardest at school", she noted.

France banned its broadcasters from targeting under-threes in 2008 and blocked Fox-owned BabyTV from launching there.

But some programme-makers insist that bans do not work, especially with so many parents using television and devices to "babysit" their children.

"It is admirable, but probably unrealistic to try to keep small children away from screens," said Ms Alice Webb, who heads the BBC's children's arm, CBBC, and the CBeebies network for pre-school children.

"Digital is everywhere. This is a tide you cannot get ahead of," she told top television executives at the MIPJunior gathering at Cannes recently.

That said, the British public broadcaster is so worried about the digital "Wild, Wild West" children are growing up in that it is holding a global summit next month to try to put heads together on how they might be better served and protected.

"We need to have this conversation now because we don't want to be saying to ourselves in 10 years' time, 'What did we do to our children?'" Ms Webb said.

She added that the BBC aimed CBeebies at children from age two, "but we know children younger than that are watching. So we have to be realistic about this and bear those children in mind" knowing that the television or a tablet may be their babysitter.

"We've games and apps that help children develop the cognitive skills that a two-year-old needs. This is about learning on screen and in the real world at the same time, it is not an either or and it's all about moderation," she argued.

For older children, Ms Webb said it was "impossible to think we can control what goes online".

She said the only answer was to "teach children what is and is not for them... how to develop critical thinking and how to cope when they see things they don't want".

She said the BBC is setting up a new online resource called Own It to help children deal with the dangers and challenges of social media.

While Instagram, Twitter and Facebook claim that only teenagers older than 13 are allowed onto their networks, Ms Webb said that in Britain, 75 per cent of 10-year-olds and above are on social media.

Ms Bienaime-Besse said regulators need stronger powers so they can act against inappropriate online content in the same way as they do with traditional broadcasters.

"I think it is absurd that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are not regulated like other content suppliers."

And she was sceptical that the industry would regulate itself when it came to younger children.

However, "if you go to Silicon Valley, all the big tech executives send their children to Montessori schools without screens and just blackboards".

"And Steve Jobs of Apple did not allow his children to use an iPad."

She added that parents had to wake up to "what we are holding in our hands. A child who cannot defend himself should be protected from the harm that these very useful tools can bring".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline 'The problem with the digital 'babysitter''. Print Edition | Subscribe