The raging debate about technology and kids has been reignited with a passion with the growing popularity of devices like iPads, Kindle, iPhone and gaming consoles.
Here is a perspective from Jyoti Minocha who advocates that while angry birds may be cute and educational apps may provide good teaching cues, what kids need most are laps and real connections with their families and the world around them.
Laps and Apps
You’ve seen it happening almost everywhere -----in supermarkets, malls, museums, restaurants, parking lots, rest rooms, doctors’ offices, McDonalds, -- in fact, in anyplace that is hospitable to and kids, as well as in some that are not. You may have wondered about its suddenly exponential popularity, and whether it’s an appropriate activity for caregivers and their charges in public places. No, I’m not talking about breastfeeding! I’m referring to the use of apps on smart phones and ipads by kids; Junior may be strapped firmly in a stroller or seated demurely next to an exhausted parent, but there are no tears, tantrums or whining as long as their little fingers are tapping and swiping at the small screen hypnotizing them. The Washington Post recently featured an article on the prevalence of app use as a distraction (or put more crudely, a ‘shut up’ tool) and an educational device, for harried parents trying to squeeze 25 hours into the day. More than a quarter of all US parents have downloaded an app specifically geared for their child, according to a survey by Commonsense Media, a child safety advocacy company, writes Cecilia Kang of the Post. A sobering fact in their report concerned the time children 8 and younger spend daily in front of a TV, computer, or a mobile device; in 2010 it was two and a half hours. This is an increase of an hour over the daily screen time for young children in 2005. In contrast, 30 minutes a day was spent with a book!
There is a magical Super Nanny quality to these digital confections. Amy Neiman, of Chantilly, Virginia, feels her two year old toddler Samantha models her father’s behavior on the iphone. “If he’s checking mail when we’re out, she reaches naturally for the phone too. I feel it really helps to keep her distracted when we are at places geared more to adults. But overall, I try to contain her time to a few minutes a day.”
Not all parents are as conscientious as Amy about limiting app time. Part of the reason for the popularity of Google’s or Apple’s offerings for toddlers is the neutralization of parental guilt by marketing their products ‘as educational.’ BabyPlayFace by Apple, for example, teaches babies first words in different languages. There are nursery rhyme apps which stand in for a busy parent by singing to baby, apps for teaching ABC, and apps for early writing skills, where toddlers can trace letters on the screen. BabySign Language teaches your baby signs for simple objects. Apple’s marketing spiel claims that their products are ‘family-friendly’ and are designed to lend overscheduled parents a helping hand that is ‘fun’ and ‘educational.’
There isn’t enough research out there to disprove Apple’s (or Google’s) claim of educational enhancement for young brains. But many experts feel that young children already spend way too much time in front of screens----whether it is the TV, computer or a mobile device. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends unstructured play as the best method for boosting brain development in children two or younger. The Post article also quotes Fred Zimmerman, an expert on media and early child development, and the chairman of the Department of Health Services at UCLA---“Kids need laps not apps,” says Zimmerman. In 2007, Zimmerman co-authored a report that toppled Disney’s claim that its Baby Einstein videos for infants enhanced language development. Zimmerman’s study, done in collaboration with the University of Washington, found the opposite----- “Infants and toddlers, aged 8 to 16 months, who were exposed regularly to Baby Einstein videos had significantly lower scores on a standardized language test than those not exposed.”
Daily reading and story time with a parent, however, were associated with higher language scores.
There is an intuitive quality to all these observations-----Language is best learned by talking to a live person. The world is best explored the good old fashioned way----by being out there---touching, climbing, feeling, interacting. “There is no substitute for real-life learning,” states Howard Gardner, professor of education and cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the Post article. “Take your kids for walks in the parks, to museums and playgrounds. There is no app for the human imagination.”
However, many young parents feel that raising tech savvy toddlers is a must in today’s digitally dominated world. Amy’s husband Matt wants their two year old Samantha to be exposed early to the technology that will be a part of her schooling and daily life in the years to come.
But Amy ensures that any app use is interactive, with mom talking to Samantha about what she’s seeing on the screen, and that app time is strictly monitored “We don’t allow it at dinner time or when she’s with a playgroup, for example.”
By interacting with Samantha as she uses technology, Amy is instinctively addressing an important, but less recognized, issue with the constant use of mobile devices and ‘anywhere’ technological tools by parents and their children. The vanishing phenomenon of family face –--to- face time. Another Washington Post article entitled, ‘Are Parents Ignoring Their Kids For Their Blackberry?’ examines the problem from the flip side----the child’s point of view. The Post interviewed Dr. Patrick Kelly of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for his views on whether the picture of parent and child seated companionably together, each engaged in their own mobile device fits the vision of ‘quality family time.’
“If you’re taking (parental) attention away from your child, for what looks like isn’t a good reason, the child may think, “What am I doing wrong that my parents don’t like me?”and may start acting out to get your attention. Your child is getting the message that your blackberry is more important than he/she is.”
In other words, technology may be here to stay, but it can’t supplant the most ancient of all human applications----holding a face-to-face conversation. If responsibly managed, apps and their spin offs should be used to enhance that conversation between parents and their children, not stifle it.