Friday, March 21, 2014

Tech and Toddlers

Alright, I have to jump in now. Particularly as I definitely have a dog in this fight (disturbing as that metaphor is).

As evidenced by the fact that I'm currently on my laptop blogging (as I listen to a podcast playing Just A Minute from BBC's Radio 4), I'm definitely in the camp of people who have a positive attitude towards technology. I have a laptop, we have a desktop, I have a smartphone, and at Christmas we bought a tablet. And guess what? Horror of horrors, I let my 2 1/2-year-old son play with some of these things. He watches Toy Story and Cars on our home computers, I've loaded up episodes of Sarah & Duck on long car trips when Ethan gets bored and irritable, and he has his own user on the tablet to play puzzle games.

So, when I saw this nonsense on the Huffington Post, I had to take a look. To be frank: it's scaremongering. It's reactionary, misleading, and - while well-intentioned - not helpful. I seriously side-eye anyone whose academic rigor is so lacking that they can reductively blame modern technology use, wholesale, for delayed development, epidemic obesity, sleep deprivation, and mental illness. All of those things are much more complex issues than Cris Rowan made them sound in her article. Not to mention, she didn't even make a good case for a causal relationship between heightened technology use by children and any of these conditions. Thankfully, the HuffPo gave airtime to another article which addressed a lot of these points. (Incidentally, most of their rebuttals boil down to Rowan's repeated confusion of correlation and causation and ignoring third-party issues in order to make a stronger case.)

To indulge in a bit of anecdotal evidence: I remember as a kid when we got our first PC. It was a Commodore 64, and I must have been about 6 years old when my dad first set it up on our first floor landing outside of my parents' bedroom. A short time later - after a few games of Jet Boot Jack - the Commodore died and we got a Compaq Presario. My sister and I played all sorts of games on it (including my favourite PC game ever), most of which - if I'm being fair - weren't overtly educational. Sure, I learned how to type properly with that computer: I learned to use the Microsoft Office Suite back when most computers still ran Windows 3.1 (feel old yet?). I learned how to surf the internet and use a search engine on that computer, but mostly it felt like a toy. When I was 14 or 15, my grandfather bought me a Gateway and I did my summer AP assignments on it. I learned to navigate the infancy of social media: chat rooms, MySpace, and AIM. I never realised until later that my years of typing, chatting, surfing, pointing, and clicking had given me useful skills for the workplace and for keeping up meaningful relationships with friends and family half a world away.

And yet, I still got outside, climbed trees, rode bikes, rollerbladed around the car park pretending to be a drive-thru waitress with my best friend, held footraces down our close, and developed the best pitching arm of all the kids on our street...even including the boys in little league. While I never got to keep my tech in my room (beyond my stereo, that is), I never had restrictions on its usage. My mother saw me use it for play and for school. I still did my homework, practised my music, and kept up a healthy social life.

I expect that my boys will be able to do the same. Sure, they're much more inundated with advanced electronics and technology from an earlier age than I was, but that doesn't automatically mean that they're doomed to be obese, lethargic, attention deficit, violent addicts. To suggest a ban on these technologies is irresponsible. Does my son need his own tablet? No. He's two. That's why he only has occasional use of the family device. But should I be restricting all watching of Disney DVDs and CBeebies on iPlayer? No. He needs to be taught responsible consumption of media from an early age. Being allowed small portions of fun things - while it may bring on tantrums when it's time to put toys or tablet away - will help him to mature and learn. He'll learn what my rules are. He'll learn that every activity has its place. He'll learn that throwing a tantrum won't get him what he wants and that disappointment is a part of life that we all deal with.

But do you know what else my sons will learn from being trained on technology from a young age? They'll learn how to do research; something that their historian mother knows is an invaluable skill for school, university, and life beyond. They'll learn STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, maths). With a mechanical engineer for a father - someone who is himself a STEM ambassador at work - we'd be remiss if we kept them from being able to easily develop the sort of skills my husband uses every day in his job. They'll be technologically literate, which is so important; but here's the thing: it won't be at the sacrifice of their social, emotional, physical, or mental development.

Unless you want to move onto a commune or join an Amish community, there's little escape from technology these days. Yes: it's always good to take the time to unplug and unwind, but an outright ban just tilts the ship too far in the other direction. For every stereotype of children using smartphones at the dinner table, or parents distractedly yelling at children while playing Angry Birds or checking Facebook, or overweight children parked on the sofa with cheese puffs and Call of Duty, there are responsible people. People who teach their children limits, as well as technological prowess. Who see smartphones, iPods, tablets, and PCs for what they ought to be: tools to navigate life in the modern world rather than crutches or babysitters.

The real key is to teach balance. To teach healthy respect for handheld tech as a tool: something that makes our lives easier...not something that is our life. Rowan's ostrich-like attitude, her reactionary totalitarian tactic - the ban - isn't helping anyone. It's not helping the children who need to be exposed to technology to learn how to navigate the world around them, and it's not helping the adults who need to be taught healthy limits and self-regulation. And if we're saying that these people who use the TV to babysit their children, or who can't tear themselves away from Candy Crush Saga long enough to be an engaged parent are exactly the reason Rowan calls for a ban, then guess what? Big Brother hand-holding, draconian restrictions, and fearmongering aren't the way to improve them as people.

Of course there will always be people who have the requisite personality and skills to overcome a generational divide in technology adoption, but why bet on your child having the ability to jump an unnecessary hurdle? Teach computer skills and responsible media consumption in the same way that you teach them how to read, how to share, or how to show good manners: early and often.

1 comment:

  1. Kids have to learn technology to keep up when they go to school. Just last week on my son's band trip they were all expected to check in through FB on their smart phones periodically.
    It is a fact of life that future generations will be surrounded by technology.
    Like you said, these same kids still play outside - all good!