Archive for October, 2011

A Touchy Subject

I’m sure there has always been something that parents are cautioned to keep their children from spending too much time playing with. Trebuchets. Plague-ridden rats. The cotton gin. Lightbulbs. Disco.

For my generation, it was TV. Then it was Nintendo. For kids just a few years ago it was Gameboys and PSPs. The new danger fad is iPhones and iPads. Go ahead and Google it up (or Bing! it, if you like to advertise that you don’t really know how to internet) and you’ll find articles from all over on the topic. Mobile devices are bad for attention spans, eyesight, exercise and imagination. They will melt the minds of our youth (and, depending on whose radiation reports you read, literally).

But I’m not so sure.

As with just about everything, it seems to me that the negatives associated with all the above items (the ones in the second paragraph, not the first, silly) are the negatives of excess and abandon. Leave your child to be entertained by any of the above and then wander off to do your own thing and of course they’re going to develop bad habits. Joshua likes to lick the iPad, because babies are little insane people. If we weren’t with him to mention that he might want to avoid licking the electronics, he’d do it all the time.

So I’m not making the case that it should be open season with these devices. To the contrary, I’m of the mind that teaching a kid to lean on the TV (or similar device) for entertainment is a very bad idea. The first memory I have of a television was from when we finally got a Nintendo and my Dad and I played Super Mario Bros. I can’t even recall where the TV was located in that first house, but it should be telling that what I remember of it was not sitting and watching it alone, but an experience that involved the entire family gathered and having fun.

As I got older, though, I began to play the hell out my video game systems. I threw a ton of hours at playing and replaying Duck Tales and Zelda and Bubble Bobble. And I watched a fair amount of TV. My knowledge of Seinfeld became encyclopedic, and I watched a lot of movies. And yet, here I am, a functional member of society. I can even write.

When I was little, even during the Nintendo days, one of my identifying characteristics was that I would have at least one book on my person at all times. Usually I would be reading two, bouncing back and forth between plots as the mood struck me. And when I was older and playing my videogames, I also played soccer and ran track and did school plays and worked on the school newspaper. I was busy, so if I wanted to burn a couple hours playing video games, it clearly wasn’t the end of the world and I don’t recall anyone having to ride my case about it.

I think both—the universally accepted goods and the generally defamed evils—have benefited me. I’ve got a pretty solid vocabulary, a wide store of various trivia in my head and pretty dead-on reading comprehension. It’s served me well into my professional life. I’ve also got pretty good hand-eye coordination, decent reflexes and a good eye for spotting small details.

My point is that just because a child watches TV or plays a video game does not mean that they do so to the exclusion of all other things. Unless, of course, you allow that to become habit.

But I started in on all that when I was older. Joshua is still a pretty little guy, and his brain is still making all its connections. The way he interacts with things now will be part of what hard-wires him for later periods in life. So, it’s hard to say for sure how the decisions we’re making with him now will affect him—but I think the fact that we are conscious of what we expose him to means it won’t go too far off track.

We let Joshua play with the iPad and he watches little bits of TV—but those things are always done in our presence. We never leave him to play on his own or watch TV so we can get something else done. With the iPad we teach him how to use it: what buttons to press, where to go to find the things he likes to play with. We point at pictures and ask him what sounds things make. If the TV is on we sit side by side on the couch and we tell him to say hi to people on screen and laugh when he asks where they went anytime they’re not in frame. We’re careful, though, and he never spends more than 15 minutes at a time doing either thing — and at this point typically each happens only a few times a week. His attention tends to wander anyway, and we just help it along if it seems like he’s apt to go off and do something else.

We also read to him constantly. We sit him on our laps and we look at picture books in the day and have him ID things. Every night before bed we read at least six books to him, some we read several times because he asks for them again. And what does he like to do on the iPad? That’s right. He likes to read the Toy Story interactive book. He likes to push the arrows to turn the pages, and watch the little movies that animate the story. He likes to play a “If You’re Happy and You Know It” interactive song/book/thing, too, where a song plays in the background and he can poke various objects on screen to get reactions. Not everything on the iPad is Angry Birds. Touchscreen devices are very usable by little ones, and parents are a huge paying market. Developers know this, so there is a wealth of software available that’s centered around young minds. You just have to hunt around for them a little bit.

There are some who may still say this sets a dangerous precedent, that we’re already teaching him to grow dependent on gadgets and he’ll never learn to imagine anything. Oooooor he’s not even 17-months old and already has a vocabulary of more than 30 words, loves books enough that he’ll request some three or four times in a row before bed and he already knows how to use a gadget that some people decades older than him have some trouble with.

It’s impossible not to admit that we don’t know what this will do for Joshua’s development (could I have made that phrase more of a jumble?). What I can be sure of, though, is that he will learn that things like the iPad and the TV are items to be used in moderation, that they are not replacements for books and that they are just another way he can play and interact with Mommy and Daddy.