An Army of Gadgets
October 14th, 2011

As of last night three of the four most recent posts on NYT’s Motherlode dealt in some way with kids’ access to technology (television, Facebook, and iPads, respectively).  None of these posts is especially substantial, but their sandwiched nature points to something that intrigues me: we really know very little about how each of these screen-oriented gadgets affects our children.

We know the most about television.  Various studies over the years have told us that it negatively impacts their attention spans, critical thinking skills, physical fitness, and interpersonal skills.  I can only assume that being glued to Facebook or an iPad aren’t that different.  And yet we live in a world where these things are ubiquitous; only the most dedicated of parents will successfully navigate their children’s childhoods without exposure to them.

GAP and I took I pretty hard line for the first two years of IEP’s life.  He was allowed in the room while we watched news or sports, neither of which really captured his attention.  But he wasn’t allowed to watch any children’s programming until after his second birthday, and even then it was a very rare occasion.  Seeing the way his eyes glazed over – captivated, but unresponsive – told me that whatever was going on in my little boy’s brain wasn’t good.  It was only as he developed the ability to interact with the show – shouting out the answers to Dora’s questions, or laughing at Steve’s jokes on Blues Clues – that I developed some peace of mind that his viewing wasn’t putting him into a Clockwork Orange-like trance.

This was the path GAP’s and my guts told us to take.  But we still don’t exactly know what effect this exposure will have on our little boy.  Neither do we know what effect his exposure to iPhones (he’s been able to navigate GAP’s since he turned two), or iPads (Nanny has one that she uses for educational apps periodically) will ultimately have on him.  Facebook isn’t in his vocabulary yet, but if there’s anything I can count on it’s that his interest in social networking will sprout much earlier than I expect it to.

Given all of this, I am prone to wonder – after a certain age, at least – whether a cold turkey approach or something more permissive is healthiest for our kids.  Perhaps no technology at all is best for young kids.  Perhaps the only thing such indulgences achieve are a few quiet moments for Mom and Dad, and nothing beneficial for the child himself.  Or perhaps (and this is the direction I’m leaning, though I’m not fully confident of it) the better direction is something of a hybrid.  Our kids will never live in a world without smartphones and iPads (at least not until the next thing replaces them…), so what good does complete denial do them if it doesn’t represent reality.  (In a sort-of-applicable parallel, most of what I’ve read about kids and nutrition instructs that we should teach our children how to balance healthy and unhealthy foods, rather than declaring war on French fries and chicken nuggets altogether.)  So is a combined approach better?  If our kids can watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and still want to read books before bed is that preferable to requesting a book only because they don’t know that Thomas exists?  (Yes, I know that the Thomas behemoth started out as a simple book.  We have many Thomas books…)

With our second child on the near horizon I also wonder how we’ll chart these waters during his first two years.  IEP knows that Saturday mornings are his time to watch his shows.  Will we pull the rug out from under him just because his baby brother is within earshot?  Likely not, but how we’ll minimize #2′s exposure remains to be seen.

The one thing that I take a bit of comfort in when it comes to issues like this is that we won’t get it 100% right, but we won’t get it 100% wrong either.  We care greatly about our kids’ mental development.  We work to ensure that they are exposed to many different settings and circumstances.  We teach them manners and initiative and boundaries.  It would take an army of tech gadgets to drown out the influence that we spill into our kids’ ears each day.

We may not know what the exact right answer is to our questions about kids and technology.  But we do know that if we’re asking the questions in the first place we’re probably on the right track.

2 Responses to “An Army of Gadgets”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    A very interesting topic, and a complicated one. My kids have definitely watched TV, though not a ton. I have to confess we took a different approach re: kids’ programming/other programming when they were littler – I never had the TV on in the background with them at all, and only let them watch when they were specifically focused on the television. Now, as they get older, they still love to watch TV, and the occasional Saturday night movie, but they aren’t super obsessed with it. My son would rather play with his Legos than watch TV and Grace would rather play boardgames or read with me. Of course they love TV, and they still watch it – I’d say maybe 4 days out of 7 they watch 30 minutes or so at the end of the day. I’m not against it on principle. But they just don’t care that much.
    I agree with your final assessment that we’re – none of us! – going to get this entirely right or entirely wrong.

  2. anne Says:

    this is hard for me, because I was a fan of TV as a kid. Although it wasn’t until I was older, obviously. I think it sorta depends a bit on the kid. No matter what you do, some are probably more prone to getting fixated on technology more than others. Adults are the same way. I don’t know why some get addicted to facebook, and others are content to spend 5 min or so on it a few times a week. So I imagine you won’t be able to make one rule and just stick with it unequivocally. But I do think you’re right…it’s unreasonable to ignore the fact that technology exists, and shelter your kids from it totally. Otherwise, how will they learn the moderation they need?

    The other issue…a tough one…is developing a plan for not only your kids’ exposure to tech, but your own. If, for example, I’m attached to an iPhone and my kid sees me fiddling with it constantly, how can we expect him/her to not be interested? It’s akin to telling a kid to eat their veggies if we don’t. they learn by example, so if we’re glued to a computer? they just might be too.