At last, there’s a sleek phone made just for kids—and it can’t access the Internet. “It’s not that it’s blocked. It really doesn’t exist on the phone,” says Stephen Dalby, founder of Gabb Wireless. “On our cellular network, the only thing you will find will be safe phones for kids.”
Being a dad launched Dalby on his design journey. “I had to get a phone for my son and I just didn’t feel comfortable with the options that were out there.”
Gabb Basic offers plenty for a child to manage as a first step toward a full-fledged smartphone. Kids can call, text, and use the calendar, alarm and calculator apps. But they can’t play games, use social media, shop in app stores, send picture messages, or group text.
Unlimited calls and texts on the Gabb Wireless 4G LTE nationwide network are $19.99 a month, with no long term contract. The phone itself costs $79.99, as opposed to $699.99 for an iPhone 11.
Smartphones were made for adults, otherwise parental controls would not be needed. As “dumb” phones disappeared from store shelves and smartphone ads ramped up, parents wanting to give a cellphone had no alternative. They would have to buy the mobile phone equivalent of a Maserati when all their child needed was a bike with training wheels.
This infuriates Darby. “When it comes to physical harm, we don’t give 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds chain saws. That seems obvious because we’re talking about physical harm. But when we talk about mental harm, emotional harm, spiritual harm, what we’re dealing with right now is an absolute train wreck.”
The destruction is rampant. Since 2011—around the time when so many kids began to use smartphones and their attendant social media apps—almost 3 of every 5 12- to 17-year-olds has developed symptoms of depression. Smart device content is made so engaging, kids move less, so they can gain weight and lose core strength. During formerly raucous school lunch periods, students sit silently—and separately—engrossed in their phones.
As smart devices were doled out to kids at younger and younger ages, Childhood itself came under siege. “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle,” says Kyung Hee Kim, an education professor who studies child creativity at the College of William and Mary.
That’s why I consider Gabb—and other smartphone alternatives such as the one-button Relay and new breed of kids’ digital watches—world-changing. The designs put parents back in the driver’s seat and the chance to do it right this time. They can introduce their kids to the digital world as they see fit in a sensible, developmentally-appropriate, step-wise fashion.
Yet, even the relatively simple Gabb is powerful enough to knock a kid off balance. A mom who gave one to her daughter says she gets “sucked into her phone” and resists getting off.
So, parents aren’t off the hook. Just as they teach their kids to eat right, they must set boundaries and teach healthy tech habits that keep kids durable in body and mind, such as to charge devices outside the bedroom at night.
Giving a child that first mobile device continues to have more strings attached than the most sought-after pair of sneakers. Parents must carefully consider their child’s readiness and the child herself should show she’s responsible enough to incorporate a powerful object of technology into a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
But as we enter a new decade, parents can breathe easier that their kids can have a safer first user experience. As Stephen Darby says. “Now they have the option, whereas before they just didn’t.”
I write this 13 years to the day iPhone was released. Tony Fadell, who helped create both iPod and iPhone, quotes former co-worker Steve Jobs’ admonition:
Don’t overschedule your kids. Make sure they get bored so they discover who they are and what they like.
Indeed, as I wonder in The Durable Human Manifesto, what might have happened if Steve Jobs were born today: would the flicker of a parent’s smartphone usurp his wandering thoughts?
He would not want anyone’s iPhone to get in a child’s way.
Download a free PDF of the quick-read The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World.
Hooray for the big tech companies who’ve enhanced their products to offer better customer control.
Apple was surprisingly quick to roll out Screen Time, a feature that iPhone and iPad users automatically receive for free with the iOS12 update. The improvements come only a year after iPod creator Tony Fadell bemoaned “We have zero data on our habits with these devices”. Now you have your data, right down to how often you pick up your phone. You can also track exactly what you do on the device so you can better manage how you spend your time.
A Boon for Parents
Screen Time is especially life-changing for parents who now can oversee Continue reading →
Top TED talker Brene Brown nailed it at the Mom2Summit when she declared: “I’ve never done anything that was worth much unless I was scared shitless and nauseous.”
That’s exactly how I felt stepping onto the red circle at TEDx Tysons in Tysons, Virginia. But as I delivered “Durable Humans are Smarter Than Their Phones,” I was uplifted by the inspiration of a host of brilliant people I want to thank here.
Copious credit goes to Hilarie Cash, co-founder of ReStart, the nation’s first Internet addiction treatment center. Hilarie invited me in to meet people like “Jeff,” the young tech addict whose heartbreaking yet hopeful story you can read about here.
ReStart’s track record proves that simple things like cooking dinner and mopping the floor can help young people break the stranglehold of addiction and return to success in real life. By creating and sustaining Attachment, Hilarie told me in this interview, parents can help kids Continue reading →
Don’t miss the new interview “A Mother Speaks about Her Son and Virtual Autism”: Watch it here.
Pediatricians are alarmed that babies and toddlers who spend hours a day on phones, tablets, and around TVs can develop autistic-like symptoms, in a newly-identified condition termed Virtual Autism. The good news: the symptoms of Virtual Autism often disappear when the children stop all screen exposure and switch to face-to-face contact, reading, and play with caregivers, other children, and non-electronic toys.
Two doctors in France are leading an awareness campaign about Virtual Autism, which they explain in this video.
“Screen viewing several hours a day prevents the brain from developing and generates behavior problems and relationship problems,” reports Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, speaking also for colleague Dr. Isabelle Terrasse. “We decided to make this video to warn parents, professionals, and public bodies of the grave dangers of all screens for children between the ages of zero to four.”
The doctors had noticed more and more toddlers with unusual changes in behavior. Some had stopped responding to their names, they would avoid eye contact, and had become indifferent to the world around them—characteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Others were developmentally behind for their age.
Drawing on left by a 4-year-old who spends little time on screen media. Drawing on right by a slightly older 4-year-old who was highly screen-exposed..
After asking parents in detail about the kids’ media use and household exposure, the doctors discovered almost all the children had spent large amounts of time on and around screens—in some cases, ten hours a day. But when the doctors had families eliminate or greatly reduce the children’s screen exposure, the ASD symptoms would almost always disappear.
Various studies in Romania have come to similar conclusions, one stating “sensory-motor and socio-affective deprivation caused by the consumption of more than 4 hours/day of virtual environment can activate behaviours and elements similar to those found in children diagnosed with ASD.”
Romanian psychologist Marius Zamfir coined the term Virtual Autism. He worries about lack of motivation among children exposed to excessive screen content. “Children’s brains are used to getting pleasure without making any effort at all,” he says in this video made for the Romanian public information campaign.
Meanwhile, a study released in 2022 of more than 84,000 Japanese babies and their mothers found that “among boys, longer screen time at 1 year of age was significantly associated with autism spectrum disorder at 3 years of age.”
“With the rapid increase in device usage,” concluded the authors, “it is necessary to review the health effects of screen time on infants and to control excessive screen time.”
Study Proves Observable Brain Changes
A study of toddlers’ brains seems to bear out the behavioral indicators.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital researchers show evidence in JAMA Pediatrics that young children who spend more than two hours a day on screens have less brain white matter. The brain’s white matter aids in thought processing and organization, as well as performing other vital functions.
“Think of white matter as cables, sort of like telephone lines that are connecting the various parts of the brain so they can talk to each other,” study author Dr. John Hutton told CNN.
“These are tracks that we know are involved with language and literacy,” he continued. “And these were the ones relatively underdeveloped in these kids with more screen time.”
47 healthy toddlers were studied. Screen exposure among them ranged from zero to about five hours a day.
In their report, the study authors did not make a connection to virtual autism nor did they specifically mention autistic-like symptoms.
Astronomical Rise in Autism Incidence
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in 1975—when VCRs first came on scene—only one in 5,000 children in the U.S. was reported to have ASD. But by 2016, video on demand had become ubiquitous and the incidence of ASD had risen to one child in 68. The CDC now estimates the rate is 1 child in every 44.
Until very recently, “AV (audio-visual) exposure in infancy has been overlooked” as a risk factor for autism, according to research ophthalmologist Karen Frankel Heffler of Drexel University College of Medicine. As she writes in the journal Medical Hypotheses, “There has been an explosion in viewing opportunities for infants over the past 25 years, which parallels the rise in autism.”
“Attention in the vulnerable infant is drawn away from healthy social interactions toward TV, computer screens, and electronic toys,” according to Heffler.
In early 2020, JAMA Pediatrics published an analysis that Heffler co-authored which found that babies who viewed TV and videos at age one had a slightly greater chance of displaying autistic-like symptoms than non-TV watching babies by the age of two. Conversely, the study found, “Less screen exposure and more parent-child play at 12 months of age were associated with fewer ASD-like symptoms at 2 years of age.”
In 2022, Heffler’s team published a pilot intervention involving 9 children between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 years of age who were diagnosed with ASD and watched at least 2 hours of screen media a day.
As the study shows, when screen time was replaced by increased interaction with caregivers, “Children’s screen viewing decreased from an average of 5.6 hours/day prior to intervention to 5 min/day during the study. Significant improvements were observed in core autism symptoms and parent stress from pre- to post-intervention.”
Heffler’s team also published a case study of two toddlers diagnosed with autism showed that when screen time was stopped and social time increased, there was “marked improvements in developmental trajectories.”
Researcher has Firsthand Experience with Virtual Autism
At the first ever Children’s Screen Time Action Network conference, I happened to meet Dr. Heffler’s research associate, Lori Frome, M.Ed. Frome is an autism treatment specialist who discovered, also by chance, that the symptoms in one of her ASD patients disappeared after her screen exposure was curtailed.
Frome then tried the same treatment on her own young son, who also had an ASD diagnosis. Over the course of several screen-free months and intensive face-to-face interaction with herself and other loved ones, he had “a complete developmental trajectory change in the core deficits of ASD,” as Frome describes in this video. In other words, her son became developmentally normal for his age.
Screen media has a “very addictive power,” says Dr. Ducanda. “Little by little the child can no longer do without and demands it more and more. If the parents try and withdraw him, he can go into a real meltdown.”
Doctors Ducanda and Terrasse contend that heavy doses of screen time affect what would be, in pre-digital times, the natural wiring of a child’s brain.
Watching a ball move on a screen, for instance, does not register in a child’s mind the same way it does to manipulate and throw a ball. Says Dr. Ducanda: “The small child’s brain cannot develop without this sense of touch.”
Dr. Andrew Doan, an ophthalmologist and neuroscientist, produced this animated video to show how watching screen media can rewire a child’s brain. In this TEDx talk, I discuss the importance of parent-child Attachment and how digital devices can interfere.
Avoiding Virtual Autism
So, what’s a parent to do? For one thing, to respect a child’s basic developmental needs. For kids to learn to speak, reason, and develop crucial social skills, they need face-to-face interaction with loving people and to use all their senses as often as they can.
A study from Iran proves the power of parent interaction and play. Investigators selected 12 toddlers with autistic-like symptoms who had spent half their waking hours on screen devices. Their parents were then given 8 weeks of lessons in how to play with their children, with an emphasis on eye-to-eye contact, loving touch, and continuous communication. While the parents applied these lessons at home, objects that had absorbed the children’s attention were taken away, including digital devices.
At the end of the two-month period, the children’s screen time had shrunk to a bare minimum, their ASD-like repetitive behaviors were greatly reduced, and brain studies showed ASD-like readings had returned to nearly normal.
One of the study’s chief investigators told me consistency is the key. For the intervention to work, the parents had to stick with high-touch, high-talk interaction all day every day during the children’s waking hours. He says researchers can now confidently recommend that children under age three should spend their time playing and interacting face-to-face with caring adults and not using digital devices.
“When toddlers range around, freely using all of their senses to examine, taste and play with whatever they choose, they are making rich and lifelong neural connections.”
So kids can stay on a healthy developmental track, experts including Dr. Ducanda and Lori Frome recommend that you:
Talk, play, and read with your child every day as much as possible
Provide materials, toys, and games that require manipulation, such as a play dough, finger paints, and a play kitchen
Go outside at least once a day and make sure the child has time to play alone and with other children
Not use screens when you are with children
Not hand a phone to your baby or young child (and keep the screen locked, just in case)
Keep the TV off around kids under age four, even if the child doesn’t seem to be paying attention to what’s on the screen
Explain to family members and caregivers why these measures are essential to a child’s healthy development, durability, and well-being
As Dr. Heffler points out in her research, autism-like characteristics that develop in very young children can have a variety of causes. Still, if symptoms do arise, Dr. Ducanda and her colleagues recommend keeping the child away from all screens for at least a month, which will require the cooperation of every household member. If that can be accomplished, she claims, the child’s ASD-like problems will likely “miraculously disappear or diminish considerably.”
Conversely, if a child has a full, well-balanced life with minimal time on screens, the symptoms may never emerge.