Is technology good or bad for young children?

Is technology good or bad for young children?

This question is on a lot of people’s minds.  If you’ve ever seen a child with a touchscreen computer like a smartphone or an iPad, it’s easy to understand why.  The devices seem to enchant kids like few things that have come before – reliably absorbing them for a surprisingly long time.  And good luck taking one away!

(Angry baby…)

Many parents experience conflicting feelings about their kids’ powerful attraction to touchscreen computers.  On the one hand, it can be challenging (and exhausting) trying to keep a child content all day long – especially during long car trips or waits at restaurants and the doctor’s office.  Having a reliable “high tech pacifier” sometimes comes in very handy.  And the fact that kids can engage with interactive apps instead of just passively viewing videos means that they might even benefit somehow, by learning problem solving skills through games, for example, or expressing themselves through digital finger painting.

On the other hand, many parents worry about the opportunity costs of “screen time” – that is, time when kids aren’t exercising their bodies, interacting with other people, or experiencing the “real” world.  Others fear that the devices may in fact be too engaging – that once a child has visited the world of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninjas they might never want to come back…

The apparent paradox of digital technology

Parents are all over the map on how to manage their kids’ access to touchscreen computers.  At one extreme, some kids have unrestricted, unmonitored use of their own personal devices and spend tens of hours each week with them.  At the opposite extreme, some families try to keep their kids completely “screen-free” for as many years as possible.

Parents frequently ask some version of the following question:

How should I manage my child’s time in the digital world so it doesn’t interfere with their understanding and appreciation of the “real” world?

I plan to revisit this question in more depth in a future post.  For now, I want to explore how it sheds light on the conflict many parents experience concerning their children’s use of technology, and how we might reframe the issue in a way that will help them move beyond that conflict.

I find it interesting that at the heart of this question is a kind of paradox, in that the “digital” world is at the same time seen as somehow less real yet more compelling than the offline (or “real”) world.

Think for a moment: what else in our lives is both less real and also more compelling than the alternatives?  Junk food and Ponzi schemes come to mind.  Junk food is less nutritious than whole food, but when given a choice, people – especially kids – often find the junk food more appealing.  Ponzi schemes are financially disastrous compared to legitimate financial investments and yet many people are lured by their false promise of quick riches.  If these are the kinds of associations that come to mind for people when they think about children and touchscreens, then it’s no wonder they experience ambivalence and uneasiness regarding children’s use of the technology!

If we stop for a moment and reflect, though, we realize that such comparisons can’t possibly be appropriate.  Touchscreen computers are simply a means for distributing content, like dinner plates or printer paper.  Dinner plates can deliver either junk food or whole food.  Printer paper can deliver a contract for shares in a Ponzi scheme or a U.S. government bond.  Similarly, touchscreen computers can deliver effective, developmentally appropriate learning experiences or “chewing gum for the eyes.”  In all three cases, to label the plate, the paper, or the touchscreen computer as “good” or “bad” in absolute terms is to confuse the delivery medium with the contents delivered.

In short: it stands to reason that touchscreen computers are not inherently good or bad for children, any more than dinner plates or printer paper are inherently good or bad for them.   It doesn’t, for example, make sense to compare the devices directly to junk food or to whole food; they can be used to serve up the digital equivalent of either type.  It all depends on how we choose to use them.

So what’s a parent to do?

While this shift in perspective does not provide hard guidelines for how to manage kids’ access to digital technology, it can help shift the questions that are generating conflict in parents’ minds.  In particular, the either-or question “Is digital technology good or bad for my child?” causes ongoing stress for parents because there appear to be big consequences for getting the answer wrong – but the question stated that way doesn’t actually have an answer.  The result is that parents constantly agonize over whether they are doing the right thing for their child, with no relief in sight.

A variation of that question asks, “How much screen time is OK for my child?”  This question certainly makes it easier to provide specific guidelines – various organizations have come out with clear recommendations such as “no screen time through age two,” or “limiting screen time to one hour per day is OK,” etc.  But this is like asking “how long should my child spend at the table with a dinner plate in front of her during the day?”  Setting an arbitrary time limit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The important question is: What are they consuming from that dinner plate and how much of it?

Similarly, a more useful question regarding technology for parents is: “What are your kids doing on the touchscreen computer, and how much of each type of activity is appropriate?”  If all the child wants to do is watch nonsensical cartoons on an iPad, then a parent might reasonably decide to limit the daily amount of time spent on that activity. But what about the case of a three-year-old boy I know, who became so completely engrossed in learning all the countries of the world, their capitals, and where to place them on a map, that he rapidly mastered them all.  Ask yourself: would you allow the child to spend hours – even an entire day – studying geography using a paper atlas or a globe?   Now ask yourself: do you have a principled rationale for arbitrarily limiting his time engaged in the same activity on an iPad?  If you do, then well and good.  If you don’t, then imagining how you would manage the activity off the device can be a good guide for deciding how to manage their activity on the device.

Summary and Take-Aways

Parents want the best for their kids, and they experience unpleasant stress when they don’t know what course of action is best.  Here’s a quick summary on this issue with regard to children’s use of touchscreen computers:

  • Avoid the question, “Is technology good or bad for my child?”  It’s a trap with no way out.
  • Move beyond the question, “How much screen time is OK for my child?”  It’s like asking how long your child should sit at the dinner table – not very meaningful.
  • Let this question be your guide: “How much do I value what my child is doing and learning from a particular experience (whether they are doing it online or offline)?”  Each parent is in the best position to answer that question for their child and to make a judgment about how much time they think is appropriate based on their values.  It may not be quite as easy as setting arbitrary time limits for your child based on third-party recommendations, but at the end of the day it should leave you feeling more empowered to make good decisions on your child’s behalf and less stressed about whether you are doing the “right thing” for them.




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