screen-savvy toddlers

Among Apple/iPad evangelists, there’s a YouTube video that’s been making the rounds since the launch, showing a two-and-a-half year old girl picking up an iPad for the first time and handling it like a pro.

It’s an adorable video. She is clearly a very intelligent child, perhaps even smarter for the time she has clearly spent on her parent’s iPhone in the past. It’s also a little bit unsettling: this toddler is nonchalant, almost weary, of this cutting-edge device, swiping from app to app, none of them moving quickly enough for her.

My seven-year-old son was recently asked to take part in a science experiment studying how children learn new mathematical concepts.  He went to the researcher’s lab with another little friend after school. The researcher’s assistant called me at home.

“I just need to ask a few questions,” she said, and after confirming his age, asked, “How many hours a week does your child spend on the computer?”
“Zero,” I answered.
There was a brief pause.
“Oh!” the assistant laughed. “No. No, I said per week.”
“Zero,” I repeated. “He never goes on the computer.”
I could tell from her confused silence that there was no corresponding box for her to check on her form.

Somewhere along the line, my first-grader’s lack of screen-savvy has become a radical stance: the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent “Generation M2” media study reported that 89% of kids 6 to 11 know how to confidently click their way around a laptop. (Not to mention the two-year-olds.) The same study found that kids ages eight to eighteen spend an average of seven and a half hours a day using something with a screen. That’s over an hour a day more than the last time the study was conducted, five years ago. That’s more hours than they spend in school. Or sleeping, for that matter.

more after the jump…

Will my son be at a future disadvantage because he doesn’t have “Super Duper High Level Clearance” on Club Penguin? Probably not, although computers can also be an incredible resource of knowledge and creativity, providing tools both more instructional and more rewarding than mere pen and paper.  To me, the problem is when we move beyond the inevitability of media in our children’s lives to the idea that it is always beneficial—and that the more of it there is, the better.

At least half of me wants desperately to run out and buy an iPad—no, make that four iPads: one for each of my kids (ages two, five, and seven), and, of course, one for me. Clearly, my kids would love them; clearly, they’d learn a lot. Maybe they’d even be as smart as that two-year-old. But the more I reflect on their lack of online and gaming savvy, the more it’s something I want to preserve for as long as possible. When it’s time, my kids can learn to flick their way around the latest intuitive handheld computer or smartphone in a single afternoon. But there’s time. What this generation may never regain, once they lose it, is the ability to sit and be entertained by their own thoughts. What they have to lose by starting a love affair with screen time too soon is far greater than any leg up they could claim.

Have you heard? When Did I Get Like This? is on shelves now. Find out more (and read the first chapter) here. Get news updates on Facebook here. Follow me on Twitter @amywlsn. I would love to hear from you.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxane B. Salonen April 19, 2010 at 3:59 am

Bravo Amy, I'm with you 100 percent. Unfortunately, I'm not quite as strong as you. My children have been exposed to the digital world. But not nearly as much as some, I would say. They're not losing out on anything, and you're right, it will come all too soon and that's plenty soon enough.


Katie April 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thank you Amy! My husband and I were just discussing this last night. My 15 year old brother-in-law was showing me a game on his new I-pod touch where you have to move beige tiles around so that you can get the lone red tile to the exit. It took me about 10 minutes before he grabbed it from me and said "WoW! Aren't you a teacher?!" and within mere seconds and a few flicks of his finger he had the puzzle completed. It was clear he had a lot of practice, and when I commented on that his response was "Well yeah, but only in Spanish class". It worries me when I look around the room and see everyone so in-tune with their i-phones, i-pods, laptops, etc, and so out of touch with reality. What does this imply for our future generations?


Anonymous April 19, 2010 at 9:07 pm

A computer is like a pencil for kids these days… and they can't learn their way around a computer "in a single afternoon". I agree that gaming time should be limited for kids. But keyboarding skills, building presentations, and spreadsheet skills are pretty important. It is a little like reading to your kid before you start school… your kid will struggle with those things that other kids will already know (especially the typing skills). I have seen some kids come into my kids' school at 5th grade (entry point for middle school in a K-12 school) and have a hard time catching up with the kids who have been using computers for years. They struggle with the mechanics while the other kids are using the computer for content already (research, typing, presenting). Not saying the iPad is the way to go, but a desktop or laptop that kids can use for some limited time and activities isn't a bad thing.


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