One of the annoying things about parenting is that experience is always ahead of science: Those of us raising kids today are dealing with circumstances, and dilemmas, that researchers will need years to understand.
Maybe that’s why parents fortunate enough to afford iPads are fretting so much about how and how much our kids use them. Researchers are just starting to understand how television affects kids (not surprisingly, the effects depend on the age of the kid and the content of the program, among many other factors). Tablet computers, with their multitude of child-friendly apps, raise a host of new questions, and today’s kids are the research subjects.
While groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and books such as Into the Minds of Babes offer some useful educated suggestions, definite answers will be a long time coming. As Hanna Rosin points out in her recent Atlantic article, “The Touch-Screen Generation,” we affluent and sorta-affluent parents are reacting to this uncertainty with a muddle of unexamined biases, handwringing, and judginess.
Is all this angst really necessary?
I’ve been mulling over Rosin’s article since I read it late last month (sorry, I mull more slowly than did pre-parenthood), and while I don’t agree with all of it, it has inspired me to think through my own very unscientific approach to “screen time.” I usually limit my four-year-old to 20 minutes of passive screen time and about the same amount of time on the iPad each day. At my daughter’s age, I’m not shy about policing content, choosing videos and apps that are fun, interactive and halfway intelligent.
But why any limits? I could, as Rosin does on the advice of one source, simply let my kid play with the iPad full-time until she inevitably loses interest. (Goodness knows the thing does help save everyone’s sanity on road trips.) Like some of the parents in Rosin’s article, I’m probably at some level afraid of turning my daughter into a screen “zombie,” or rendering her unable to function outside the digital glow. Unlikely, I know.
The real reason I limit screen time at my daughter’s age, I think, is that the most crucial lessons at this stage can’t happen on screen, at least not entirely. Some apps are brilliant at building kids’ skill with reading, writing, color recognition and so forth (I’m sure researchers are right now gathering the data to prove it). All that stuff is important, of course, as is digital literacy. But it’s a tiny part of what my daughter should be learning right now. To my mind, it’s much more important for her to be acquiring independence, and empathy, and responsibility. And those qualities are hard to learn if the iPad is always alluringly within reach. She has to learn them from things that aren’t as inviting or immediately satisfying as the touch screen: messy, complicated people and messy, complicated stories. Especially stories that leave a lot of space for the imagination to fill up.
And that’s where my own prejudices kick in, I suppose. I don’t care if stories are told on dead trees, in pixels, or on .mp3s, but I think stories told in words introduce kids to the serious fun of fleshing out characters and building their own worlds. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, or reactionary. But I think these imaginary people and places, elaborate collaborations between the author and the reader, help kids put themselves in others’ shoes, and test themselves in situations they may not encounter in real life. I remember learning some of my lessons in bravery from The Hobbit, and those in compassion from The Secret Garden, and I don’t need data to know that I’d like my daughter to have the chance to do the same.
Rosin cleverly observes that “Norman Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen,” but as she watches her two boys playing with a writing app on the iPad, she imagines that if Norman Rockwell were alive, he might “paint the two curly-haired boys bent over the screen, one small finger guiding a smaller one across, down, and across again to make, in their triumphant finale, the small z.”
I agree — he would. But I hope, too, that artists of the future will paint children swinging through imaginary trees alongside imaginary beasts, roaring their terrible roars and gnashing their terrible teeth — without an outlet in sight.
Top image by Flickr user Lance Shields. Creative Commons.