Blessing or Addiction?

keyboardRemember when I wrote about my son’s wonderful ability to message me and everyone else through FB? Jonathan is 32, has Down syndrome, reads and spells like a champ, and FB messaging was a brand new way he could communicate. I was thrilled. Typing transcends both distance from family and his stuttering difficulty, huge pluses. But the Little Engine That Could ran away with train, and soon Jonathan was ignoring computer curfews and messaging his way far into the night. He was now an addict.

The result, of course, was a roaring case of DO (device overstimulation) and the inability to sleep well (the blue light from devices prevents the body from producing that magic hormone melatonin, which puts us to sleep.)

Enter Mom wielding a towering ultimatum. “The computer goes off every night at 8:00 and doesn’t go on again until you get home from Goodwill every afternoon. Got it? If you keep your computer on after 8:00 p.m., Linda will take the power cord!”

Linda is Jonathan’s caregiver; she’s an onsite witness to his shenanigans and very much like family to Jonathan. Both Jonathan’s dad and I have given her certain disciplinary thumbs up (confiscate the computer power cord, etc.)


All went well for several weeks until Linda proudly bragged to me about how awesomely Jonathan was sticking to the rules. He overheard this, and apparently thought, “All clear! They won’t be watching now. I can sneak in longer computer time.” He made his move last night, when I saw that he was still messaging me after 10:00 p.m.

BUSTED! My iPhone tells me exactly when he sends a message.busted

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Linda discovered his computer still on at 10:20 p.m. and “let him have it,” both barrels blazing. I was saving my scolding until the next morning, as he was in bed by the time I checked my phone in my time zone. But apparently Linda more than made her point, because he wrote her three (count ’em, 3) apology notes: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again. I promise. etc.” The specter of losing his big screen loomed large on his horrified horizon.

When Jonathan came out of his room the next morning, he said to her, “Last night was a disaster with you and me.”

“That’s right,” said Linda, “And it’s going to get a lot more disastrous if you do that again!”

So now we have Plan B in place: one more infraction, and the power cord goes into hiding over a whole weekend, which in his eyes would be the worst possible calamity.

So here’s my point

device limitingWe have to set firm limits with ALL devices our children with DS use. And I do mean all: smartphones, tablets, computers…anything. Furthermore, I propose that we have no options regarding this. A device which sometimes helps educate, sometimes entertains (and face it, sometimes babysits) our kids must be controlled. 

Why do I say we have no options over whether or not to control it? Because device use by its very nature changes our children’s brains. The problem is apparent enough that studies are now being conducted to see just what the damage is. Shorter attention span is obvious; but what else is going on? If you want to go into deeper study of this, check out the book “iBrain” by Dr. Gary Small.

Or faster, scroll down on my FB page “Down Syndrome Reading with Natalie Hale” and view the two short videos on kids and devices. Device overuse is now described by the medical establishment as an addiction. Why? It literally addicts the brain with repeated dopamine hits.

Here’s a stunning quote from Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker: “”The thought process that went into building Facebook was all about ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means we need to give you a little dopamine hit once in a while…exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

You read that right. The founding president of Facebook. And did you know that Steve Jobs and other top silicon valley VIPs strictly curtailed their kids’ device use? Really? Yes. Check it out. What do they know that we don’t?

Use it rightly or lose it

As parents of kids with developmental disabilities, we may have an extra need for device use. AAC devices can make a huge difference in the life of a child who is nonverbal; it is a great blessing for the child and his family and educators. Devices can help familiarize our kids with language, reading, letter sounds, and more. Notice that I didn’t say “Devices can teach our kids…” That requires human facilitation, and this has been researched and proved over and over. But devices can help.

What we need to do is be aware and stay aware: how much time do our children spend in front of a device of any kind, large or small? Size of the device doesn’t matter; the effect on the brain does. We need to control, monitor, and enforce the limits that we determine are healthy for our kids. No one else is going to do this for us. No one.

Don’t forget to view the two videos I’ve shared on devices on my DS Reading page (scroll down to see them). You need that info. Or if you’re really courageous, Google “dangers of too much screen time.” Yipes.

On a kinder note…

retro Christmas music boxAt the moment, we’re in the Christmas season, and I came across a darling toy, a retro “TV set.” It’s about 4″ by 4″ and has a miniature snow scene inside the TV box. The child turns the knob and Santa and his reindeer come around and around while Christmas songs play. All of this happens quite slowly, unlike the nanosecond-speed of devices.

I have been using this “TV time” as a reward in all of my reading sessions with my students with DS, old and young. I sit across from them and watch them as they watch, and I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see the smiles and rapt eyes on their faces as they watch.

This still works. These things still work, and give imagination much more rein than a device. Watching their smiles glowing in the light of the little “TV” has been my best Christmas gift so far.

Happy Holidays from sunny-with-a-zero-percent-chance-of-snow Los Angeles!

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