Plugged In!*

This post is both a response to a specific article, and a dueling post with my friend (who is the mother of the four-year-old I regretted being unable to drive to the grocery store) over at  We have different (but respectful!) positions on our kids’ media consumption.  And away we go!

So first, the article.  I have to say, whether one believes in allowing one’s kids unfettered access to TV, video games, computers, and iGadgets, or one believes in moving with said children to Amish country, or if one occupies some place in the middle, this article is kind of annoying.  I think there are two assumptions that annoy me about it:

  1. All tech is the same, and the same kind of bad for you.
  2. If you let your kids use tech, the only thing your kids do is use that tech, ever.

On the first point, there’s even a researcher they quote who says they’re basically conflating cell phones and TV.  Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe (now there is a name!), a pediatriacian who is on the American Academy of Pediatrics’s communications and media board says, “We always try to throw in the latest technology [when assessing their guidelines on screen time], but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones. . .  At the moment, we seem to feel it’s the same as TV.”  That strikes me as a serious vacuum in the research.  Cell phones are not TV.  Whether the effects of letting your kid play with a cell phone are bad or not, they cannot be the same kind of bad as TV, since they are two separate things.

Cell phones are also not the same as iPhones, and iPads, and iPod Touches.  I’m not saying this to be an Apple booster.  I love Apple products, my husband has a serious obsession with them, but I’m not just saying, “Rah rah!  iPhones are SO MUCH COOLER!”  I’m saying they’re different.  Give a kid a regular cell phone, and s/he might accidentally call your sister* or send a text or maybe access your ring tones, which s/he would probably find very enjoyable.  But there are a lot more things to do with an iPhone, for good or ill, some even designed for children, again, for good or ill.

Given the difference, I think “cell phones” are only temporarily amusing and therefore pretty harmless (unless your toddler places a call to the co-worker you’re bad-mouthing at that moment, which, frankly, will probably happen). iGadgets and other app-centric phones are the things I think that (ought to) produce the most debate.  It strikes me as very telling that this is a difference that the American Academy of Pediatrics’s council of communications and media isn’t really addressing when they make their guidelines, as it makes me feel that the guidelines are therefore kind of meaningless.

The second point I think is the more significant one, though.  This quote from Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, CO, particularly bothered me:

“Any parent who thinks a spelling program is educational for that age is missing the whole idea of how the preschool brain grows.  What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology.  You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’  You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening.  Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”

She’s responding to (or at least the article makes it seem as if she’s responding to) a story about a mom who thinks her three-year-old has a better vocabulary than her eight-year-old did at the same age because of the programs she’s using on the iPhone and/or iPad.  And there’s so much wrong with her statement.  First of all, apparently, the spelling program IS educational, because the kid is learning to spell.  One might argue that spelling is not the most crucial thing for a three-year-old to learn, but first of all, I’m willing to bet that that mom doesn’t think it is; I think she just downloaded some apps that she thought would engage her children’s minds, and that particular one (Montessori   Crossword, if you’re curious.  I’ve never seen it so I don’t know anything about it) did, and second of all, I doubt very highly if spelling is the ONLY thing that mother is trying to teach her three-year-old.  Dr. Healy seems to assume that, because there is an iPad in the house that the children can use, they never get “whole body movement” or “the manipulation of lots of objects.”  I have to tell you something.  I have a toddler.  I cannot imagine a method that would effectively prevent Zoe from experiencing “whole body movement” or “the manipulation of lots of objects” short of actually tying her to a chair.  She also plays with an iPad.  I suppose there might be a problem with some parents thinking of certain things as educational and therefore trying to get their kids to do them at the expense of doing other things that are actually good for their children – like making them sit with the iPad doing a spelling program and preventing them from going outside and running around – but I have to assume that’s a very small minority of parents, especially parents of three-year-olds, and even if it’s not, in this quote, and in this article, the distinction is not addressed.  It seems to be mostly “Either tech is fine or it’s the devil!”  And you know, it is the New York Times.  Some nuance is not uncalled for.  Finally, what makes Dr. Healy call the technology “opaque”?  To whom is it “opaque”?  What does it mean that the technology is “opaque”?  If it were “transparent,” or even “translucent,” would it be okay?

It’s the last part of the quote that really gets me.  Let’s go back.  “Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device.  Where is the language?  There is none.”  That’s awfully judgmental.  First of all, there are a number of legitimate things a parent could be busy doing.  Making dinner.  Folding laundry.  Working, so as to better the world, or working for their company’s interests and therefore making money to put food on the table for their kids.  Relaxing so as to have the emotional strength to be a good parent and a happy person.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that a parent is ALWAYS preoccupied and NEVER interacting with his/her child.  That’s kind of ridiculous.  And nasty.

I think there’s a tone in the article, which is not surprising to find in a lifestyle article in the New York Times, frankly, that is a little hand-wring-y.  Oh, my goodness, the young people, they have stuff we didn’t!  What to do?  And the truth is, there is very little predicting what effects all this new stuff will have in the long run.  You want to know my favorite thing I heard?  Video games may help you become a surgeon. Something about the organization of the brain and the hand-eye coordination.  But it took the kids who first started having home gaming systems growing up and going to medical school to show that it would have this effect.  My point is not that it’s going to turn out that iPads are awesome for children.  My point is that for all the talking heads we’ve amassed, on any topic, from the economy to parenting, most of the time, we don’t know shit.  So I think it continues to be best to go with your instincts, to parent like the person that you are, and to know your kid.

And, as always with parenting articles, apparently only moms raise children, because they’re the only ones ever quoted.

So much for the article.  Why do I let Zoe watch so much TV?  And play with so much tech?

First, I really think they are two very separate questions.  And I’d like to tackle the second one first, because I feel no guilt whatsoever about it.  I think the things she does with the iPad and iPhone (well, not the iPhone anymore, because Jason wants to protect our iPhone 4s from her now that she has the iPad) are either cute and harmless or actually kind of good for her or at least interesting.  I call her the postmodern baby because, with the Videos function on the iPad, Zoe can (and does) choose a non-linear mode of storytelling in which she is an active participant in the order in which she watches movies or even scenes from movies; she is not even bound by a single title but can mix at will.  It’s fascinating.  And, I think, fine, and cute, although for a while there we were in the habit of trying to put her to sleep by turning off the lights and letting her watch the iPad, which backfired precisely because she’s such an active participant in the “watching” activity and also takes after me sleepwise and would never fall asleep if there was something more interesting to do or unless she could literally not keep her eyes open anymore.  And then there are programs that I think are great.  There’s this memory game she likes, and an object-, shape-, and color-identification program that I think has been educational.  I even love that she loves to flip through photos on either iGadget and exclaim over pictures of her family (and herself).  So I think the iPad, et al., are good.  Not a replacement for other forms of education and play, not good if they are used to the point where parents don’t interact with kids ever, but good.

The TV is more complicated.  Because yes, I think I let Zoe watch too much of it.  And yes, I think it’s at very best a neutral activity and that’s being very optimistic.  On the other hand, I don’t think all TV is bad.  I know we like to bemoan the loss of reading in favor of the screen but they used to bemoan the novel as silly frippery that will make women amoral and men stupid.  Before that there was a problem with writing stuff down – we’d destroy our capacity for memory if we didn’t memorize and tell stories orally, like the entire Odyssey.  And some TV is very good, artistically speaking, especially nowadays.

Furthermore, I watch Zoe watching TV.  She is not a passive absorber (of anything, including TV).  She interacts with the characters on screen.  She comments and makes observations, both factual (“She hit the guy!”) and moral (“That’s bad.  Stop it!  Stop hitting, Buffy!”).  She remembers things.  She sings the songs she hears.  She repeats things in certain contexts, like today she kept putting mine and Jason’s hands together just as Quasimodo does to Esmeralda and Phoebus at the end of Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Even when she was a very young baby (I know!  I let her watch TV before she was 2!  I am a very bad mommy!) she would respond really enthusiastically to Rachel Maddow’s facial expressions.  And when the TV is on, she’s also playing with blocks or scribbling on her Aqua Doodle or running away as is her wont.  She’s not glued to the set, and I like to think that maybe it’s because she doesn’t consider it to be that big a deal.  Of course, it could just be that she’s an active person.  Sometimes (most of the time) I think as parents you think your actions are having a specific effect and the truth is you have no idea what effect they are having in the long run.

And I think a big part of us letting Zoe watch movies is that we want to share with her the things we loved as kids, and we loved these movies.  Or in some cases our siblings did.  This comes back to parenting like the person you are.  Jason and I like TV and movies, so naturally, we show Zoe TV and movies.  Jason is a major tech geek, so naturally he wants to share his love of gadgets with Zoe.  I think in the end, whether it does some harm or some good, the overall good is sharing things with your children.  And the thing is, if you are the type of parent who sees nothing wrong with handing your kid a gadget and then “busily doing something” all the time, and NEVER interacting with your kid, then, first of all, I think you probably make up a very tiny minority of actual parents, and second of all, you’re kind of a shitty parent, and you would be whether you were handing them an iPad or a rag doll.  So I think for me, letting her watch TV and movies is just an extension of who I am as a person, and allowing me to be that way, and her to be that way, is a way of letting myself relax a little bit as a parent.

*I mean this title metaphorically, of course.  We are quickly approaching wirelessness around here.

**Cute story.  Zoe did this once.  She was maybe eight or nine months old and I was cleaning up our breakfast and she had taken my iPhone off the charger.  I look over and she’s leaning over the iPhone and from the iPhone I hear, “Hello?  Hello?”  Zoe is babbling happily.  She had called her Aunt Kate.  I don’t know how she did it.  I almost never use the cell phone as a phone; I don’t think Aunt Kate was in the Recent Calls, and she’s not on my Favorites list.  (No offense meant, Kate.  My Favorites is more “People I might need to call from the car,” not “My Actual Favorite people.”  If it were the latter, you’d be Number One with a bullet!  :-))


One thought on “Plugged In!*

  1. rebleah18 says:

    I agree with what you said about NYT articles: how everything is either good for you or the devil. Did you see their article about using technology in b’nai mitzvah preparation? They were covering a whole spectrum of how technology is being used (from skyping with a tutor to putting the whole process, including the service, online) and trying to make a single judgment about it. It isn’t good or bad, it’s how you use it. You’re brilliant as always, and I eagerly await your response to the book I sent you:).

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