Return of the [Digital] Native

A few weeks ago I returned from my first conference I have attended as a pediatrician.  What better way to spend this occasion than to attend the 2014 AAP ExperieNCE, the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition.  My husband and kids joined me in sunny San Diego for this conference, and I was struck by how happy and engaged I would feel now experiencing pediatrics from a more macroscopic perspective – learning about politics and advocacy while continuing some of my general medical education, and networking with fascinating colleagues all the while. It was a fun experience.

After the conference, I joined T and the kids, who during my work trip were enjoying a seemingly endless parade of amusement park experiences. We decided this should culminate in a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. I had never been there and was excited to go, and I must admit – seeing my son run up to Pluto was pretty darn fun. But the experience gave me one major regret.


We weren’t going to go in – but the wait was barely five minutes and T really wanted to learn about the technology there.  I figured, hey, if we want to see it we might as well do so. Let’s go in and see what it’s all about. What I thought I’d see: a museum exhibit of Marvel comics with a few opportunities to meet characters, so why not.

And at first it was fairly interesting. On the top floor on which you enter, there were – as I expected – some Kinect-style videogames, futuristic driving simulators, and yes, some comic book characters. But after a glimpse into “driving” of the future, we descended down the steps to the first floor, where we saw the Microsoft “Dream Home.”

Stepping into this “Dream home” after being at the AAP Conference reminds me of the time I went to Vegas after visiting the Grand Canyon. Wholly disturbing.

Let me explain.

One of the highlights of the conference is getting a sense of the Academy’s agenda for the coming year – in the past major themes have been immunization, mental health, obesity, safe sleep for example – and become issues for which the Academy advocates in years to come. This year Early Childhood ages 0 to 5 took the stage, as pediatricians from around the country put in their word for advocating for children, investing in children, to make the early childhood experience a strong foundation in terms of health and literacy. Specifically, certain potential detractors from childhood health including toxic stress – or stressful childhood experiences – were addressed as issues that could not only affect the children, but could affect the generation descending from these children as well.

And let’s not forget the stresses that can be experienced by all children today in the form of screens. Pediatricians are very concerned that entertainment in the forms of near-constant access to screens could be very detrimental to our children’s brain development. Traditional learning happens in the 3-dimensional world, and the more we learn from the screen, potentially the fewer connections may be made in the complex recesses of our brain.  While technology is a terrifically cool phenomenon – who among us hasn’t marveled by the ease with which our children can get acquainted with the family iPads and start playing the so-called interactive games – it has its limitations. And while most of us understand that some time getting acquainted with the screen is important to thriving in the digital world, we are highly concerned about children’s attentions getting diverted, language development decreasing, and normal human interactions ever-moving to the sidelines.

So here I am, the average pediatrician, stepping into what Microsoft envisions to be my life in the future. The first thing I noticed? Screens. Screens EVERYWHERE.  5-6 screens as picture frames in each room for artwork which was simply backlit screen images. 10-20 screens holding family photographs and sitting atop a grand piano. An automatic grand piano that had its own screen with someone playing in the background, and the keys moving animatedly to the music. So much for screen-free living spaces.

Nobody was really sitting in these dimly lit caverns of rooms. They were simply these humming, buzzing, automated rooms that seemed to exist by themselves, barely even needing a person to navigate the interior.

Geez, I thought, with this as my competition, how will we as a profession be able to stress to families that screens are to be avoided? If each room has not zero, not one, but many screens, where do we even choose to look? And how do we live our lives so that we can see these screens adequately? In the darkness?  Will our dimly backlit screen-optimized Dream Homes do everything for us, even simulate our presence?

As I adjusted to my new environs, I wandered into a children’s bedroom, enabled with four bedtime stories ready to be told. Okay, I thought, as a cast member prepared to read us Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, one of my favorite Disney-fied tales.  T, the kids, and I sat down to watch as he invited some of the children to sit up near him in the pirate ship that was in the corner of the room.

As the gentleman began his story the entire room illuminated with screens – projections of video on the walls of the home, sparkles of lights of Tinkerbell, animatronic furniture, and loud music.  The disjointed storytelling, though animated and “entertaining,” was impossible to follow with so much going on around us.

While our kind reader encouraged the children to get engaged in the story, it didn’t really work.  I couldn’t help but notice my son gazing at one of the screens on the side of the room. He was mesmerized by a video clip of Peter Pan. The images had nothing to do with the lines of the story that the man was telling, nor did they relate to the music we were hearing. The other children were all focused on different things but there was no harmony here, simply fireworks of entertainment that failed to convey a thing. And the cacophony went on So. Darn. Fast.

It was when the cast member encouraged the kids to come up to shoot Wendy and Peter Pan down with the cannon that we took it as our cue to leave. My son – only 3 years old – wasn’t enjoying the noisiness of that part very much. And let’s face it, I was so overwhelmed by the spectacle that I was ready to leave. I had to get myself out of there before I started hyperventilating. Yes, I’m kind of a lame-o.  But I know myself and that show just wasn’t agreeing with me.

All this is to say – Pediatricians: I encourage you to go and see Innoventions. Learn more about what we’re up against when it comes to screens.  Parents: Do you believe it when they tell you this is the future?  How do you feel about it?