Kids and Touchscreens

Please excuse me as I unpack a Russian nesting doll of articles I'm just now catching up on.

On Tuesday, Mat Honan published a piece about parents using screens to babysit their children:

“But the ever-present touchscreens make me incredibly uneasy—probably because they make parenting so easy. There is always one at hand to make restaurants and long drives and air travel much more pleasant. The tablet is the new pacifier.

But these screens have a weird dual nature: They make us more connected and more isolated at the same time. When I hand my daughter an iPad with an interactive reading app, she dives in and reads along. But she also goes into a trance. It’s disturbing because, frankly, it reminds me of myself.”

Shawn Blanc had some thoughts on the matter:

“Letting our sons play a learning game on the iPad or watch an episode of The Magic School Bus isn’t wrong in and of itself, and we don’t want them to grow up feeling shame related to the usage of digital devices. But neither are we going to let them zone out for hours watching cartoons on an iPhone so we can live our lives without the “inconvenience” of little boys who constantly want our attention.”

So did Stephen Hackett:

“...the most guilt-inducing part of these articles? The fact that I screw this sort of thing up all the time.”

Boy, do these posts ever speak to me right now. My son Brendon is just over two years old, and has already shown surprising proficiency in navigating gadget interfaces.

He knows the Netflix app well enough that he can quickly find it on anyone's iPad or iPhone—no matter what page or folder it lives in—and scroll down to the kid's section and play one of his favorite shows, like Super Why! (Thankfully there hasn't yet been an issue of him accidentally pulling up Breaking Bad or some horror film.)

He has a "toddler tablet" of his own (given to us as a Christmas present from my brother-in-law) that he plays puzzle games on. He also knows how to turn on our PS3, put in a specific movie, and hit the controller's X button at the menu to play it.

If I'm being honest here, it all freaks me out a little.

Part of me knows he is growing up in a world filled with screens. I'm sure he will wonder how we ever got along without them. In that regard, it seems silly to prevent him from getting used to the technology while he's still an information sponge.

But like his father, he shows an unfortunate tendency to cling to a screen and zone out for extended periods until someone intervenes. The thing that really makes me feel guilty is that sometimes we just let him do it—not because we don't care, but because it buys us some uninterrupted time to focus on our respective projects. I'm not proud of it.

In our defense, we've been trying to get better about this. We've been gently introducing limits on his screen time, such as only letting him watching one or two episodes of something before we take the screen away and encourage him to find another activity. We try to keep our devices hidden from plain sight when possible, since he's prone to picking one up whenever the opportunity presents itself. We put other things in front of him instead, like a coloring book or some building blocks. We've also been spending a lot more time on the floor actively playing with him or reading to him, rather than ignoring him (which has undoubtedly affected the pace at which I publish articles here on the site, for good or for bad).

I don't know that any of this is effective, or even if we're necessarily doing anything right or wrong either way. I can't honestly say that screen time has ever had a negative effect on him—for all I know, I'm just biased because we didn't have tablets and smartphones when I was a kid.

I don't have any concrete answers here. All I can do is try to find the balance between using screens as a convenient/entertaining "pacifier" and using them purely for educational purposes.

If other parents are reading this, I'd love to hear your insight.

(Update: Just as I finished typing up this draft, Shawn Blanc and Stephen Hackett put out an episode of The Weekly Briefly podcast on the subject of kids and touchscreens. They make some great points about boundaries and the fact that all modern parents are having to navigate these murky waters. I recommend giving it a listen.)

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