Techno tots

Senior editor Ariel Brewster wonders whether parents feel guilty when they use tablets and other technology as parenting tools.

By Ariel Brewster
Techno tots

Photo: Baona/iStockphoto

Have you heard about the hospital in Los Angeles that's using iPads to keep brand-new moms connected with their newborns isolated in the NICU? It's the latest story in a slew of provocative pieces about how iPads and tablets are changing North American kid-rearing culture – in this instance, from Day One of a child's life.

Hanna Rosin's story, “The Touch-Screen Generation,” is on the cover of The Atlantic this month, and Nick Bilton wrote a thoughtful piece for the New York Times technology blog, Bits, about watching his sister pull out two iPads to pacify her two antsy kids at a restaurant.  Was she practicing good parenting by keeping the kids quiet and contained in a public place? Or was she taking the easy way out instead of teaching her kids how to behave respectfully and expecting them to participate in dinner conversations?
A toddler’s intuitive ability to use a touch-screen is pretty remarkable – we've all seen it. My two-year-old niece hasn’t mastered potty training yet, but she’s way better at Angry Birds on my iPhone than I am.

We’ve seen the YouTube video of the baby trying to “swipe” a printed magazine page. Young children can become so engrossed in what they’re doing on a tablet, it’s both magical and disturbing. And we don’t really know whether all this screen time is safe, because iPads and iPhones are too new for the long-term studies on a child's health and development. (Check out this link for more on the screen time debate.)
Are we just grumpy because we didn’t grow up with the privilege of two iPads to keep us entertained at a restaurant? “Whatever happened to a colouring book and crayons?” one commenter asked in response to the post on Bits.

It's very possible that every subsequent generation of parents is instinctively scared or disdainful of any new technology they're not familiar with. But our children, Rosin points out, have never known a world without touch screens:

“Mom, everyone has technology but me!” my 4-year-old son sometimes wails. And why shouldn’t he feel entitled? In the same span of time it took him to learn how to say that sentence, thousands of kids’ apps have been developed — the majority aimed at preschoolers like him. To us (his parents, I mean), American childhood has undergone a somewhat alarming transformation in a very short time. But to him, it has always been possible to do so many things with the swipe of a finger, to have hundreds of games packed into a gadget the same size as Goodnight Moon.

Setting aside safety and health issues, the other big takeaway is the question of what constant, easy technology teaches our kids, as they become members of modern society. Instead of getting bored, then letting their minds wander, then engaging with their environment or socializing with others, they’re looking down at a phone or tablet. Here’s an excerpt from the Bilton piece:

"Conversations with each other are the way children learn to have conversations with themselves, and learn how to be alone," said Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. "Learning about solitude and being alone is the bedrock of early development, and you don’t want your kids to miss out on that because you’re pacifying them with a device."

She's saying kids won't know how to be alone with their thoughts, or how to sit and let their mind be at rest. Their brains (and attention spans) will crave more rapid-fire stimulation. Another commenter mentioned that nowadays, kids watch movies in the back of the family minivan during road trips, instead of looking out the window and wondering about the world around them, and that really struck me. It’s so true. Are we raising kids with lazy imaginations?
Others say that iPads are great at exercising a kid’s growing, sponge-like brain. It's not just mindless swiping. “A tablet can be anything – it’s what you do with them that counts,” another commenter wrote. There are all kinds of interactive apps that let children learn new skills and go places they could never go in real life. And keeping your kid from today’s technology, it could also be argued, might make them feel like they’re falling behind in the modern world.
I was just at a conference for journalists – ironically, much of it was about digital tablet publishing – and it was the kind of professional event where, historically, a bunch of nametag-wearing adults with similar interests stand around awkwardly at receptions, striking up conversations with strangers. But because we all have smartphones these days, instead of introducing ourselves to our colleagues and tablemates, many of us chose not to take that social risk. Instead, we glued our gazes intently onto our phones, and pretended to look busy. (My father-in-law calls this the “BlackBerry Bow.”)

If grown-ups can learn to so easily tune out their surroundings and isolate themselves in social settings, I wonder what it will do to our kids, who will have grown up never knowing anything different?
 What do you think? Do you ever use smartphones or tablets to keep your kids quiet? Have you set limits on how much screen time is OK?

This article was originally published on Apr 10, 2013

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