Category Archives: Screens

iPad vs. child

For years now I’ve been exploring, questioning & writing about children & screens, especially around the time of Screen Free Week. Again, Screen Free Week is upon us (it actually started today–we’ll start tomorrow, promise)! What a better way to welcome the (slowly) improving weather than by putting down our devices for a bit & exploring life beyond our screens! In celebration (& hopefully to offer some inspiration), I thought I’d reflect on how my family’s interaction with technology has changed over the years & share a parenting fail that provided me with a wake-up call…

Things have drastically changed in my house since T’s arrival in this world. When T was born, we had a desktop computer & I had a laptop for law school. We had a TV. We did not have cable. We did not have smartphones. We did not have handheld devices aside from our not-so-smart, basic mobile phones.

So as I started learning about babies & screen time, it was an easy enough parenting choice. The TV stayed mostly shut up in its cabinet. There were no apps to tempt us.

When we moved halfway across the country, we ditched our old tube TV. (No, this was not the 90’s… this was 2011!) The old desktop stopped more or less working.

But what we lost in size I gained in handheld power. We had recently upgraded the laptop so I could avoid having to take the bar exam on paper… Seriously, terrifying thought! With law school & the bar exam behind me, MFA Dad took over. I acquired an iPhone. Eventually I got an iPad, too.

T was older, and as he exited the toddler years, we loosened up a bit. We now allow some videos: a mix of Netflix cartoons, documentaries, a few movies (everything from Frozen to Lego Movie to Episode IV of Star Wars to Sponge Bob in 3D, which is a story unto itself).

We haven’t yet had to set time limits. When T was younger & we were more strict, he never saw a screen he didn’t like, no matter what was on it. Now that the mystery is gone, it’s a bit easier to quietly manage his access. I don’t anticipate this will last, though… We haven’t yet entered the world of video games…

What I’ve learned is that my use of technology will prove to be heavily influential in how T views & uses technology in the future… And let’s just say I have a lot of room for improvement…

T & I had a quiet night together while MFA Dad had a rare Friday night out with one of his best buddies. I was looking forward to spending the evening with T. I meditated on the train ride home & prepared myself for parenting with awareness & compassion (as opposed to parenting under duress, which is how parenting after work sometimes oftentimes feels…). I was feeling relaxed, focused & ready for an enjoyable evening with my energetic little guy. 

And things were going well. We had a lovely dinner together. He sat mostly still & ate all of the chicken taco salad I had quickly thrown together (with the help of some tortilla chips). T then made himself dessert: a mash-up of frozen blueberries, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, plain yogurt & cinnamon. We were chatting & laughing. It was one of those (rare) magical parenting moments.

He was so cooperative. I thought, why not get get a jump on the weekend chores & get his help planning meals for the week ahead. (I like trying to include him in the planning as a way to get him invested in this family activity, hoping we’ll be able to more easily cajole home into helping with food prep & eating. It sometimes works, but usually it makes no difference. Oh well, I keep at it…)

We use Plan to Eat for meal planning, so I grabbed my iPad. Things continue to go swimmingly & I get some input for meals & snacks.

But then things start to turn…

T asks me (very sincerely), “Why are you such buddies with your iPad?”

Shit…

But he doesn’t stop there… Oh, no…

“I think you’re better buddies with your iPad than with me.”

Heart, in pieces.

Young children are astute. T recognizes that I have a relationship with my iPad. He also recognizes (& painfully pointed out) that my interactions with my device interfere with my relationship with him.

If I’m completely honest, I use my iPad a lot. It’s the way I connect with people (via email, messaging, Facebook, FaceTime, etc.). It’s the way I connect with myself (through meditation timer & apps, yoga videos, journaling & blogging). It’s the way I take care of household chores (meal planning, cooking, finances, shopping). And it provides entertainment (Netflix, PBS, etc.).

T, who can’t yet read, has no idea what I’m doing on my iPad unless it involves looking up a Jangbricks Lego review for him to watch. (Strangely entertaining, by the way.) Our lives are so intertwined with technology & it is so difficult to create & keep to boundaries when, really, we use our devices to manage everything from birthday parties to grocery lists. Not to mention our jobs! 

Since that fateful Friday night when T schooled me, I’ve meal planned in his presence again. I told myself I’d do it on pencil & paper, but, nope, iPad… It’s just so darn efficient when time is at such a premium.

So what is the appropriate way for us to use technology in the presence of our children? I don’t have an answer & I fail daily. I think eye contact is a start. I’m trying really hard to put down the device & make eye contact when T (or anyone) is talking. It’s kinda lame that I have to remind myself of that, but it’s the hard truth. 

This Screen-Free Week, I’m aiming low… Take my cue from T, who likes to do stuff with his hands, like IRL. Maybe play Uno. Make eye contact with my boy.

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Should apps for babies be marketed as educational?

I read today that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (“CCFC”) has filed complaints with the FTC regarding marketing of apps aimed at babies. The complaints allege that the apps of two companies make educational claims about their apps that are not backed up by research.

Good for them. They stood up against the Baby Einstein & Your Baby Can Read scams & now they’re tackling the gargantuan (& seemingly ever growing) baby app industry.

Hanna Rosin on Slate disagrees. As in her Atlantic article (see my take here), she seeks to defend the app industry & read the scant research in such a way as to make touch-screen technology OK for very young children.

And, yet again, Ms. Rosin misses the point & confuses education & play. The apps that are the target of the CCFC’s complaints make educational claims. They do not bill themselves as the playful, high tech distractions they really are. If the apps were marketed as “a way to entertain your child while you take a shower, enjoy a sip of hot coffee, or talk with a friend for five minutes,” that’d be one thing. It would be an honest description of what these apps do for parents.

I am glad that Ms. Rosin can make sensible decisions about how her family will utilize apps & touch-screen technology, but consumer advocacy groups exist because many people simply aren’t media- or marketing-savvy. Ms. Rosin may be able to see behind the ridiculous claims. Not all parents can or do.

What touch-screen technology does for very young children continues to be a hotly contested issue (so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics continues, despite the proliferation of apps for very young children, to urge against screen time, “television and other entertainment media,” for the under-two set).

So for Ms. Rosin to blithely dismiss the difference between touching a brightly-colored shape with real-life contours & the screen representation of the brightly-colored shape (as if it were well-settled that they are of equal value) is absolutely disingenuous. Is it a “crime” that the “baby can’t actually feel the bumpy star”? Of course not! But just because it’s not a crime doesn’t mean it’s good or even just “OK” for young children. Touch & sensory exploration play a large role in how we learn & understand our world. I doubt that Ms. Rosin can point to any studies to suggest that tapping on the representation of a purple star on a screen is better than (or even just as good as) her old toy with the “real” purple star. I’m certain hand manipulation (at least for very young children) will win out every time.

Which is why a rock is better than any app.

Perhaps not as convenient in a restaurant. But better, nonetheless.

I suppose Ms. Rosin would dismiss my point of view as coming from one of those parents nursing a “nostalgic vision of childhood dominated by bubble blowing and sand-castle building.” I’m not. Technology does & will play an important part in my son’s life. And like most parents, I’m figuring out a way to help him learn to navigate our tech-heavy world. (And for the record, I think bubble blowing & sand-castle building get old really fast.)

Ms. Rosin, I’m certain, pictures herself as falling in the camp of parents who are trying to “make reasonable choices about, say, how many and which apps they will let their toddler play with and have reasonable expectations for results (that it will occupy your baby, not groom her for Harvard).” (Note the lack of any sense of “reason” or “reasonableness” associated with the other “camp.”) This second approach also sounds reasonable enough (though splitting parents into adversarial groups is a non sequitur & reveals the flaw in Ms. Rosin’s argument…).

So why, then, rail against these CCFC complaints? Wouldn’t honest, well-founded information on apps help parents make decisions regarding which to expose their young children to? And let’s not forget the apps targeted by the CCFC are for babies, not toddlers or pre-schoolers.

The bottom line (for me, at least) is that Ms. Rosin has shown once again that she is not an even-handed journalist on this topic. She appears to be more interested in finding justification for allowing screen-time than in getting to the bottom of the screen-time-for-tots issue. That’s what blogs are for… (ahem…) exploring these daily parenting quandaries. But we are justified in expecting more from journalists, even from quasi-news-culture sites like Slate.

Parents like me are desperate for real information on the potential benefits & perils of exposing our littlest ones to touch screen technology. We have to keep digging. And as I’ve written before, until there is reliable research showing that touch screen entertainment (which even Ms. Rosin recognizes is all that is out there in terms of touch-screen apps) is not harmful for very young children, I will advocate for following the AAP guidelines.

(Another bugaboo I have with Ms. Rosin’s coverage of this issue is her assumption that this is a dilemma most family’s face. Truth be told, we have not yet found room in our budget for an iPad & I use my phone exclusively as a tool, mostly to protect myself from the time-suck of games & other entertaining apps… But also to set an example for T. I’m lucky to have a smart phone but the screen-time issue is a first world, middle class problem if ever there was one… And really, the true problem is not whether we should be letting toddlers play games on an iPad… It’s what to do to raise up the tech-illiterate who don’t have access to technology, even at appropriate ages.)

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It’s over… Screen-Free Week, that is

Well, I’d say Screen-Free Week was a big bust in my household.

It’s the truth.

There was some good, but first, a confession.

I got bored. I was between books & craft projects. So I snuck in screen time in the evenings & mornings. I peeked at my Facebook feed for interesting links posted by friends. I devoured a few book reviews on Slate. I searched for recipes online (even though I have a small army of cookbooks in the pantry). I browsed the public library website for new books for my kindle (even though we have no fewer that four bookshelves filled with every genre imaginable). I looked up a few homemade remedies that I knew of but didn’t know how to execute. I watched a couple things on Netflix with MFA Dad. I watched a bit of T’s favorite documentary with him Friday night. I let him watch the rest on Saturday morning by himself.

Things I didn’t do: I didn’t research general food stuff. I didn’t follow the news. I didn’t update, blog, tweet or otherwise post anything on the Internet. I didn’t use the web as a gateway to self- or pseudo-diagnosis. I didn’t read any personal blogs. I didn’t check email or any socials media when I was with T (& I mostly didn’t when I was with MFA Dad, either).

Two good things about Screen-Free Week, though…

The world (both online & off) got along just fine in my absence when I went on total detox the first few days. I was energized & for stuff done!

Also, I trusted the world & people & being a lot more. I asked questions, thought things over in quiet. I just was.

So it’s not that Screen-Free Week was a total bust, but it was hard. And definitely far from perfect.

I think it would be more meaningful if my whole family was involved. And if T were a bit older. As it is now, T just gets conflicting messages & MFA Dad & I are in different places.

And, finally, screens are ubiquitous. I look at my iPhone to set a timer or check the bus schedule, in addition to all the stuff I was avoiding. My library has really good books for the kindle. My friends discover all sorts of important & interesting things in the world & share them on Facebook.

Detox is necessary, but so is a good dose of restraint practiced on a daily basis. Until next year’s Screen-Free Week, restraint (especially with hand-held devices) will be my goal.

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Screen-Free Week 2013

Well, it’s here again, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week has arrived & I’m gearing up to power down.

I need it this year.

I’ve been too distracted, too obsessed with my smart phone, when I’m with T. Checking Facebook. Checking email. Checking message boards. Checking blogs (including my own).

Time for a break!

I can’t wait, actually.

During my commute, I’ll read. At work, I’ll work (duh, but even so… the distractions seep into all aspects of life). Before bed, I’ll read something on paper.

Most importantly, when I walk through the door after work, I will focus totally on being home. Playing with T, connecting with MFA Dad, cooking, brushing my teeth… Whatever it is, I want to do it without distraction.

And when I’m home, no screens for T. Including next weekend. (Hopefully the weather will cooperate so T’s not house-bound, with all that entails.)

Like I said already, I can’t wait. Seriously. I need some detox.

I won’t be perfect. Dear, no! There’s no such thing as perfect.

If T’s watching Bob the Builder when I get home from work, I’ll join him. If we want to look up a bird, I’ll try to remember to use a book, but I might instinctively reach for my phone. MFA Dad & I will probably watch Mad Men on Netflix.

You get the idea.

So take the following with a grain of salt & know I write it without judgment.

See, I recently (& timely) read Hanna Rosin’s recent article from The Atlantic, “The Touch-Screen Generation” & I think it’s total hogwash.

What starts as a critical look at the use of touch-screens by toddlers ends up being just a rationalization for why giving iPads to preschoolers is ok.

Tellingly, Ms. Rosin reports that at a conference for developers of children’s apps, many of the developers she spoke to set strict limits on their own children’s use of touch-screen technology. She continues by reporting on the state of the research on children’s (particularly toddlers’) use of touch-screen technology. … Basically we have no idea what touch-screen technology does to our children’s brains (as I’ve written before … and Ms. Rosin ignores the research that is a bit more damning of our preschoolers’ use of touch-screens).

But Ms. Rosin doesn’t stop there. She ends by focusing not on the effects of this new technology on our children’s well-being, but on what kids really want from touch-screen games.

She discusses one particular company developing apps for the toddler set, arguing that the open-ended play their games encourage are just what kids young children need from an app. Moreover, she thinks that these sorts of apps (specifically apps by Toca Boca… the article is virtually an ad for this particular game developer) are simply fun for preschoolers.

But Ms. Rosin doesn’t convince me that any of it is good. To the contrary, her argument is based on anecdotes & her own family’s experience.

I agree that a game that encourages free play is better than a game that merely advertises to our children. But I’m still not sure it’s worth my $0.99 at the iTunes Store or worth T’s time. (Though maybe it’d be better than another episode of Thomas? A discussion for another day…)

There’s clearly no avoiding touch-screen technology. To ignore it & our children’s interactions with it is na├»ve. Eventually, they will need to become literate in this technology.

A researcher quoted in the article suggests it’s unrealistic to try to protect our children from media, even at young ages. The researcher’s take is that we need to “take advantage” of what new technologies can offer our children.

I don’t know. Television has been around for a long time now & the research is pretty clear that it does nothing for our kids. So just because the technology exists doesn’t mean that young children need to know how to navigate that technology. Just because it exists doesn’t mean there’s some advantage to be had for our preschoolers if we can only figure out how.

Ms. Rosin’s overall point (I think) hits the nail on the head: Why kid ourselves. These apps aren’t “educational”. At best, they’re fun, a welcome distraction.

Because trust me, I was relieved when my sister-in-law whipped out an iPhone app for my son & nephew when we were all at a restaurant a couple weeks ago. (I don’t have any children’s apps on my phone, something I sometimes regret, especially at restaurants…)

That’s it. A moment of quiet.

That’s what we get from all these new (experimental) fun & educational apps. Let’s not kid ourselves or rationalize.

So please join me (& many, many others) this week & tune out. It’ll be fun! It’ll be a challenge! It’ll be… something!

I’ll be back next week to let you know how it went. And please leave a comment with your own successes & challenges!

Happy Screen-Free Week!

P.S. Traveling? Travel is possible screen-free. Ideas here.

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