One of the most predictable, normal, and irritating parts of aging is the strange tendency to overly-romanticize our childhood, especially compared to the kids of today, who just don’t know anything. We mask the flaws of our time and hype it up in our heads as a period of self-reliance and independence. Why, I think, I remember growing up in that distant, Mayberry-ish past of the 1980s, where we roamed wild and free. When in reality one of the dominant memories of my childhood was when after the Transformers movie (the cartoon one with Orson Welles, for real) came out, the next season adapted that continuity. And, most importantly, there were new toys! It was truly magical.
The point is that very few people under the age of 50 grew up without being addicted to some kind of moving pictures on some kind of glowing screen. So, there is a certain amount of disingenuousness to the tongue-clucking that comes with the new generation’s obsession with mobile technology. That said, a recent survey showing that, for children age 6-12, the Apple iPad was their favorite brand, comes as a bit of a surprise. It definitely signifies that this technology will change certain aspects of childhood forever. The question is how much, and whether that is for good or for ill.
Better than chocolate
Let’s first stipulate the somewhat unwholesome-seeming weirdness of asking children about their favorite brand, instead of just, you know, their favorite things, which we’d like to imagine as katydids and salamanders and baseball and the power of imagination. We don’t live in that world. It is still surprising, though, that the Apple iPad narrowly tops Hershey’s, with larger margins over Oreos, M&M’s, and Doritos. (The last one is a relief, because while this blog deals largely in opinion, it is an objective if unpopular fact that Doritos are disgusting.)
While it is surprising and easy to ask “how can a glowing screen beat delicious chocolate?” it is, when you think about it, relieving. I don’t just mean vis a vis a national obesity problem. While the iPad can promote healthy activity, it doesn’t mandate it. Regardless of what you think about a reliance on technology, the iPad is designed to stimulate the mind, and not just temporarily hop up the body.
Does the Apple iPad promote thinking?
The question is how much an iPad stimulates the mind. There is an argument that it does nothing other than trigger basic pleasure centers, no different than the TV and that even its cooler and more interactive apps are a pale substitution for the real thing. That’s probably fair but only to an extent. The Apple iPad can be used exclusively to watch TV or movies, and can easily be used as a passive babysitter. But I think it has some mitigating benefits, which can make up for its overuse.
- Those pale substitutes are better than nothing. The example used in the above link quotes a Harvard associate professor of human development saying that “Although children enjoy iPad apps such as finger painting, Rich countered that ‘the iPad does not give you that great feeling of paint squishing through your fingers.’” That’s true as far as it goes, and paint isn’t that hard to find. But what about music-playing apps? They might not be as cool or as valuable as a real guitar or drums or keyboard or marimba, but who has all those instruments?
- Access to everything. For that matter, who has every book ever published? No one, but the iPad comes closer than your library or mine (and I’ve never made the transition to digital books, but as book-crowded as my apartment is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what a digital library can in theory be). The world is expanded with an iPad or another mobile learning device.
- They are made for learning. There are thousands of apps that can help your child learn astronomy, medical facts, history, math, science, anything. It’s no different than having a thousand books on any subject, except it is feasible and more affordable, and the interactive nature appeals to the mind of the child.
To be sure, there are some drawbacks. It’s easy for a stressed and tired parent to use it as a fallback, or for a child just to play games or watch the same movie for the thousandth time. It’s the same with television, though, or with any other technology. It’s possible to over-rely on it or to use it poorly. That doesn’t change that it can be potentially used as a source of active and interactive learning, entertainment that opens up the mind.
No one is saying that the iPad is an end-all be-all for children. There are risks in exposing untrained children to the privacy maw that is the internet, as argued in a sharp Dallas News piece by Katie Stephens. And of course the idea that the iPad can replace going outside, running around, making up stupid games with your friends, and just being reckless in general is ridiculous. We also don’t know the long-term effects of iPad or other new technology on children, because there hasn’t been a long-term yet.
Bearing in mind I ‘m not an expert, any incipient panic seems like a misunderstanding of both the technology in question and the very essence of childhood. All children are fascinated by things that beep and light up and are shiny, and a lot of that is stupid. But the huge majority come out ok, because that one shiny thing triggered a thought about something else, and that sparked the imagination. It’s a normal and natural process.
The huge difference is that these shiny things can help us learn. A child can have their imagination and their intellect sparked, the two compliment each other. It can make them want to learn more and to explore more. It has the potential to show them the whole world. And as Calvin, that great exemplar of childhood in both its frustrating dependence on cartoons and its endlessly expansive and limitless scope of imagination said at the end of a beautiful run – it’s a magical world out there. Let’s go exploring.
Follow the ClickAway Blog for more insights into Mobile and Digital Technology.