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.

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