Today we’re going to talk about mobile technology and children. It’s a pattern, when writing articles like these, to compare today to some sort of halcyon golden youth, or to say something like, “When I was a kid, a mobile was something you stared at as it spun around, and by god, it taught you the power of imagination!” But it didn’t. All a mobile did was to teach you the wages of crushing boredom, and to pretend that anyone much under 50 grew up in an idealized Mayberry is crazy. My youth was full of cartoons and Froggers and A-Teams.
That said, it is vastly different than what young people today are navigating, and we’re just making tentative steps toward understanding what that means. It’s an open debate, and one in which it’s difficult to take a firm side. So let’s consider the concerns of the two opposing sides in the debate regarding the role of smartphones and tablets for kids.
Mobile Tech for Bay Area Kids: Cons
To start with, we should understand that children are already using mobile tech in huge numbers- 75% of children under the age of 8 already use them. We’ll stick with that age group for now. Once kids get older, say, in the double-digits, using smartphones and tablets is going to be a necessity for both school and, eventually, work. More on that forthcoming.
There are many people who believe that this can be a bad thing. For one, children under the age of 2 have a rapid expansion of brainpower as their minds develop. Some psychologists contend that the rise of ADD and ADHD is due to children’s minds being overstimulated by electronic devices during this crucial period of development (this includes television). If this is correct, it could pose a problem, as more than 1 in 3 children under the age of two have used handheld mobile devices.
Another argument is that these devices are inherent problem-solvers. I know a guy who laments that everyone having smartphones circumvents ridiculous bar arguments about sports or history – you can look up how many home runs Ralph Kiner hit in 1952 instead of arguing endlessly about it (37). This is mostly a joke, but the ability to instantly access information circumvents the needs to problem-solve in other areas in life, which can slow the growth of critical thinking skills. There are also arguments that these devices hinder imagination, as well as contribute to the obesity epidemic by keeping kids indoors and sedentary.
The Pros of Smartphones and Tablets for Kids
Let’s address the last argument first: imagination and obesity. It is perhaps true that if you just have your child sit around all day and watch garbage TV and movies, they may be dull and overweight. But this isn’t a problem inherent in the medium. The same thing can happen with books – after all, not every book is inherently stimulating, and they certainly aren’t active forms of entertainment. The electronic medium, in and of itself, isn’t the problem here.
Perhaps the most important argument is that these devices can be used to teach children the skills they need. They can learn math, science, colors, shapes, sounds, animals – everything kids want to know about. Again, and I’m saying this as someone who loves books, learning about these things from a smartphone imparts no less knowledge than through paper.
There is also an argument, hinted at above, that you will be slowing down your child’s ability to interact with the modern world by preventing them from learning to properly use these devices. It is overstating the case to say that they will fall irretrievably behind unless they have an iPhone by their third birthday, but given our increasing reliance on technology, knowing how to use it is almost a necessity. Additionally, for parents, these are toys that don’t cause foot injuries by stepping on or tripping over them. That’s a pretty huge plus.
What it comes down to is making choices. Too much of anything is bad; too little can be harmful, as well. A parent has to decide what is right for their child. Smartphones and tablets for kids can be a great good, allowing them to have an interactive library and museum in the palm of their hand. However, it is not a babysitter. Having electronic devices as part of your child’s life – but not the whole thing – seems a reasonable way to raise a kid in the 21st century.