The Digital Chill Pill for Kids
Because I’m not a parent, I don’t spend a lot of time on blogs devoted to raising children. I read Motherlode sometimes on the New York Times, particularly if the article concerns education or children’s health. The only reason I came across this article was because it showed up in my Publisher’s Weekly daily email. I was intrigued because of my interest in cyberliteracy and how children are more adapted to constant use of the Internet than adults (even me, despite the fact that I’m 22). True, millennials and younger people are technology natives, while older adults are technology immigrants, where the younger people grew up with technology and have little to no trouble using it, while adults have to acclimate and adjust to a (digital) technology-heavy world. But even millennials are behind young children who are growing up with cell phones and iPads (I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in my teens, and even then it was a clunker). I see kids in the subway on iPads, in restaurants, in stores, in strollers. I’m mostly fascinated by this trend–all a parent has to do is hand over an iPad or iPhone, and a child is entertained for hours, much more than those activity or coloring books you did on road trips as a kid with a box of crayons. It’s a digital pacifier.
Is handing a kid an iPad any different than giving a coloring book or interactive game/puzzle? The goal is to distract the child, so what difference does it make if it’s on a screen or not? We’ve been developing games to improve children’s education for ages, and that technology is becoming more and more sophisticated as time goes on. As a kid, I had a “laptop” with a bunch of educational games on it, and my brother and I often worked on brain teasers/puzzles/logic games. So, were my brother and I any better off?
The Ads Say This: Tablets Teach your Kids to Read, Write, and Play
You can’t escape the bombardment of tablet apps and ads geared toward children. I see them every day on billboards and in the subways. They’re ubiquitous, and the message is clear: an iPad can teach your kid to write, to read, and to play (by the way, play is a valuable form of learning, but that’s a different topic for a different day). Because parents want their kids to get ahead of the curve, they’ve invested in video/handheld education games for years. As a kid, I remember seeing ads for pre-tablet handheld video games, kind of like a Nintendo Gameboy but it was all about interactive learning. But these games and handheld devices have become increasingly sophisticated and diversified with thousands of games and apps to choose from.
In my opinion, yes, iPads are different than old-school non-digital games. As someone who had bad fine motor skills, using a regular crayon to color improved my handwriting. Using a pencil to practice my letters made my grip on writing utensils better. Using my finger to trace letters on a screen or pressing spaces on a coloring “page” would have done little to solve the problem of my poor fine motor skills. In addition, you interact differently with paper and actual hard games like Rubik’s cubes or mancala or even checkers than you do with a screen. I’m not faulting parents who use iPads to get their kids to chill while they try to go shopping or enjoy a meal. I definitely understand that from a non-parent perspective. But should iPads and tablets be our default digital education tool?
There’s another perspective on this–giving kids iPads as a constant distraction prevents them from interacting with other people and improving interpersonal skills. Additionally, not having constant visual and auditory stimulation on a screen teaches children how to sit in quiet, to be alone, to be by themselves in their heads. Children need to react to external stimuli, but children also need to know how to really talk to other people and to value alone time.
Interestingly enough, the article mentions an expert whose Ted talk I watched during cyberliteracy class. Sherry Turkle explains that the more time we spend in front of screen, interacting with others through instant messaging and email, the more we isolate ourselves, and not in a good way. Having a good-ol’ fashioned conversation and actually engaging another person are far more valuable than learning your letters on a tablet. Knowing how to keep in touch with people beyond just Facebook wall posts and photo sharing is an important skill that we inhibit in our children when we emphasize digital technology that cannot–and should not–replace basic human interaction. We are social creatures, herd animals, and we benefit enormously from human touch, from mimicking other’s facial gestures and body posture, from learning basic social skills.
Maybe iPads are better than what I had–how do we know? The data isn’t in yet about what children on iPads are like long-term in terms of neurology, psychology, and sociology. Only time will tell.
What About Books?
So what does this have to do with books, you ask? Well, publishers and developers alike are creating books that are more like games than books. Just like those books where you have a choice (“If you enter the cave, turn to page 50; if you decide to take an alternative route, turn to page 12”), these new books embed into the text games, video, sound, etc. In a way, I think this development is pretty cool that books are now a social, interactive application. Integrating media into text is important–multimedia and multimodal texts are becoming de rigeur.
But, as a traditionalist, I have to put up a fight for the old school book. Digital, interactive textbooks will probably be a good thing–kids will be able to check answers quickly, engage in learning, and explore new learning techniques. But as for literature with a capital “L,” the value of the old school paper book cannot be overstated. These books teach concentration, focus, and valuable lessons on the human condition. Books as art shouldn’t be reduced to fun and games–“serious” reading improves critical thinking skills and themes about what it is to be human.
So please–use an iPad, but still get kids hooked on reading with picture books, then chapter books, then young adult books, then books for adults. Books can still be illustrated, fun, entertaining, exciting, even without buttons and whistles and bells and gadgets.