A look at the pros and cons of letting your children get their grubby little hands on your smartphone and tablet.
“Intuitive” is a word too often used to describe modern technology, especially since much of it can confound even the savvy. But, as any parent will tell you, the iPhone or iPad are pretty much the dictionary definition.
It’s rare to be in, say, a pediatric waiting room without facing a sea of tiny faces and fingers operating Apple touchscreens. In fact, 29 per cent of tablet owners (and 65 per cent of tablet-owning moms) let their kids use their tech. If you include smartphones, then 10 per cent of zero- to one-year-olds, 40 per cent of two- to four-year-olds and over half of kids five to eight have access to a mobile digital-media device. And no wonder: it’s not a toy, it’s a toybox.
My two-year-old son Emile began using our touchscreens around his first birthday, mostly playing the free Virtuoso Piano iPad app.
It looks and sounds like a piano. (It’s pretty eerie, actually.) E loved it so much that, one day when I was taking the iPad away, he stood up to hold on to it. When I lifted it out of his hands, Emile just stood there, his arms outstretched, his expression plaintive. This was the first time he ever stood up all on his own. (Not for long, mind you, as he soon looked down and, like Wile E. Coyote a few feet over a cliff, immediately tumbled to the floor. But the very next day he took his first step.)
For those early months, we were pretty apprehensive about it. There’s a lot of fear out there for new parents when it comes to “screen time,” whether that screen is television or touch. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents that even “educational” TV had no benefits for kids under two—and could actually be causing harm. (Mind you, much of that harm is related to parents over-using TV as a babysitter rather than using it as occasional entertainment.)
But does this apply to tablets and smartphones?
A pediatrician and AAP member admitted to Time magazine that “we just don’t have the data yet.” But that didn’t stop Psychology Today from arguing that iPads are evil. “Playing peek-a-boo, reading a book, rolling on the floor with the dog, or banging on pots with spoons are all better for them. Why push babies to live in a digital desert when they can grow up in a much richer environment—the real world?”
Well, yes, obviously. But too much pot-banging or dog-rolling would be bad, too. (The not-so-secret tip to good parenting that I return to time and time again in this column is moderation.) And when used sparingly, touchscreen technology can work wonders.
For one, YouTube on iPhone is a great negotiating technique—turns out toddlers will do just about anything, from getting dressed for school to going to the potty, in exchange for watching The Muppets “Mahna-Mahna” sketch or kittens playing on a slide. And, unlike TV, once it goes back in your pocket, it’s out of sight, out of mind.
And there is also little of TV’s passivity when it comes to iOS apps. What’s interesting about toddlers playing with a multi-touch user interface is how quickly they figure out cause and effect, even if that viral video of an irritated girl trying to swipe a dead-tree magazine shows they don’t quite get the how and why.
Initially, Emile used the iPad to make music with the various virtual instruments. As well as his piano and pretty much any drum app, he also liked the made-in-Toronto Dub Selector, a reggae DJ app using music by local legends Dubmatix, and iDaft, a Daft Punk app that would prompt the oddest adult stares when they saw my wee bairn tapping away at a phone while live-remixing “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
He also liked Peekaboo Barn, which is basically a bouncing red barn emitting animal noises that, upon touching, would open its doors for a duck or a cow to pop out as its name was said aloud. Screen-time concerns are valid, but a high-tech flashcard is still a flashcard.
E eventually moved onto more complex apps. We sometimes let him watch Fraggle Rock or Winnie the Pooh on long car drives, but mostly he reads interactive storybooks, plays with counting and spelling apps, does jigsaw puzzles, draws with his fingers, or builds robots. (Yes, really.) The App Store is filled with kid-friendly developers—Bloomberg estimates kids apps are a $500 million annual market in the U.S. alone—and in next week’s column I’ll go through some of the best ones.
All of this is not to say there aren’t dangers. Little kids can get obsessed with things, and so it’s important to not give them too much time with the devices or use it as a “digital pacifier” while you are busy doing other stuff.
I learned the latter the hard way. While on an important landline call, I handed Emile my iPhone, figuring it was playing the Yo Gabba Gabba soundtrack and there wasn’t much damage he could do with it locked.
But he’d learned that swiping his finger makes stuff happen—stuff like bringing up a number keypad on a locked phone. I learned that if you hand a locked iPhone to a child, he will keep pressing all the password numbers wrong until the phone assumes it is stolen and self-destructs, wiping its memory clean of precious un-synced photos of your family vacation and video of your son playing harmonica with his grandfather.
So, yes, in that case, I guess I should have given him a pot to bang on.