Cellphone experiment at Ottawa daycare offers strong message for parents

Cellphone experiment at Ottawa daycare offers strong message for parents

Joanne Schnurr, CTV Ottawa | Published Wednesday, June 15, 2016 5:44PM EDT

Technology is getting so easy to use these days that even a baby can figure it out.

That’s what one Ottawa daycare wanted to highlight in a little social experiment it did, with a strong message for parents. We know that children learn from watching and what they are learning from many of us is that we would sooner talk on our cellphones than talk to them.

So a daycare decided put technology in the hands of tots to see what would happen.

At 15 months old, little Caiden Nicol already knows how to swipe the photos on his mother’s cellphone. With a quick flip of his wrist, he scrolls through the photos of himself, much to his mother’s surprise.

"More and more children gravitate to these cellphones,” says Candice Nichol, “because they see other people using it.”

That's something that troubled the head teacher at the infant program at Elizabeth Park Child Care Centre in Ottawa’s south end. So, Margaret MacNaughton decided to try an experiment using toy phones and demo cell phones to see what the babies, aged 8 to 18 months, would do.

The results surprised even her.

"They were actually texting and swiping,” says MacNaughton, “and it is amazing to see at this age how much knowledge they had of cellphones.”

While the toy phones generated some interest, it was the real McCoy that caught their eye. For McNaughton, it was an eye-opener about our society and our obsession with technology.

“The message to parents,” says MacNaughton, “is put those phones away. If you're at the park, be with your child; get on that climber with them. Build that bond because that bond is what's going to carry them forward into the world.”

It is a message echoed by Dr. Michael Cheng, a child psychiatrist at CHEO, who says babies brains develop through face to face contact. They need that to thrive.

“The problem with technology,” says Dr. Cheng, “is that it gets in the way of face-to-face contact.”

He says the impact of our misuse and overuse of technology is huge.

“What we're realizing is that all the time we are spending on our devices is making us less emphatic empathetic and if you think from a global perspective, one of biggest challenges we have is a lack of empathy, a lack of ability for people to care for others and there's a lot of us that believe it has to do with the excessive screen time kids get.”

Dr. Cheng says this is also raising questions about the dramatic rise in mental health issues both among kids and adults.

“There is growing data that suggests that the misuse, the overuse of data technology is related to a lot of the rise in mental health services we're seeing,” he says, “whether it is mood issues, anxiety or increased inattention.”

Dr. Cheng says clearly technology isn't bad; it has the power to help us and connect us but too often, we're letting it disconnect us.

So, back to our experiment which is admittedly an elementary experiment at best. But, it becomes clear for every parent that children mimic what they see.

So the message from Dr. Cheng and Margaret MacNaughton is to mimic positive behavior, that face-to-face contact.

And leave the screen time for another time.