Consider the possibility of kids’ self-regulation of digital media

Are iPads bad for little children? I ask that metaphorically, for two reasons: because iPads represent a host of tablets and other touchscreen devices children seem to play with joyfully and intuitively, and because that attraction makes it extra hard to imagine kids could self-regulate that iPad play. And yet they do.

Take Gideon, for example (“Giddy” to himself and his family). In some of the best reporting I’ve seen on kids and technology hands down, Giddy’s mom Hanna Rosin – national correspondent at The Atlantic – tells what happened with him and “his” iPad when he wasn’t quite 2 years old. His first app was Talking Baby Hippo, in which the pudgy protagonist would laugh when Giddy poked it on the screen. “At first [Gideon] would get frustrated trying to zoom between screens, or not knowing what to do when a message popped up. But after about two weeks, he figured all that out,” Rosin writes in a thorough, thoughtful article. Even though Giddy’s story (I’ll get to the good part in a second) is only a tiny piece of it, it illustrates a notion I think it would behoove us parents to entertain: that our children have some built-in self-regulation capabilities, that it’s not strictly up to us to regulate and enwisen them and that it’s good to look for and nurture those tendencies.

The fascinating part of Giddy’s story

Rosin thought she’d test out Marc Prensky’s “extreme parenting philosophy” – the one that says requiring kids to consume text in books instead of interact with content on screens is more about believing in (maybe clinging to) where we came from than where we are right now. So he treats all of his son’s media the same – books, TV, apps, whatever. It got Rosin herself to wonder if “books [are] always, in every situation, inherently better than screens?” Her other kids are 9 and 12, and her daughter, “after all, uses books as a way to avoid social interaction, while my son uses the Wii to bond with friends.”

So she decided to conduct an experiment, she wrote: “For six months, I would let my toddler live by the Prensky rules. I would put the iPad in the toy basket, along with the remote-control car and the Legos. Whenever he wanted to play with it, I would let him.” Her account of what happened was a lot like what we experienced in our family with an 11-year-old after getting his first Xbox 360 console and games. There was a slightly obsessive quality to Gideon’s iPad and my son’s Xbox play for a while. Then we experienced something quite similar to what Rosin describes: “After about 10 days [it took longer for us, but there wasn’t quite the same level of obsession], the iPad fell out of his rotation, just like every other toy does. He dropped it under the bed and never looked for it. It was completely forgotten for about six weeks. Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often.”

As you think about that, keep in mind that it wasn’t like Gideon was getting bored with just one toy. The variety and number of apps available for the iPad make it so that the iPad is a bundle of many toys, and Gideon tired of the whole package.

Do try this at home?

It wouldn’t go like that for all kids, of course, but it’d probably be hard to find out. Because in these times of overparenting – with all the pressure there is on parents to get every detail right (however that’s defined) – there aren’t many experiments like Rosin’s being conducted in American households. Can we allow enough time to see if our kids will self-regulate (i.e., get bored with the device or medium in question) before we intervene?

Rosin cites the view of Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, that it’s not like these media and devices are going away. By three years ago (2010), “two-thirds of children ages 4 to 7 had used an iPhone, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which studies children’s media,” she writes. So the question of whether touchscreens are bad for kids is academic, as they say, and academics like Calvert have moved on to ask how kids learn and have fun using apps on touchscreens. [See also my post on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s study about younger kids’ social media use.]

Sidebar: Are we passing on our biases?

In her research for the article, Rosin talked with parents observing how their kids were playing with apps on iPads and felt she’d tapped into “the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children.” Later she mentions the book Screen Time, by journalist Lisa Guernsey, who wrote something in sync with findings by researchers at Harvard looking into young people’s attitudes toward media. “Two sentiments we heard from a lot of young people,” Carrie James, director of the research project said: that “the Internet is simply for fun” (therefore inconsequential) and that “they feel a lack of efficacy online – if they see something unsettling they tend to ignore it or move on because they don’t feel they can change anything online.”

Where could the young survey respondents have gotten that? Guernsey may have the answer. Rosin writes that “one of the most interesting points Guernsey makes is about the importance of parents’ attitudes toward media. If they treat screen time like junk food, or ‘like a magazine at the hair salon’—good for passing the time in a frivolous way but nothing more—then the child will fully absorb that attitude, and the neurosis will be passed to the next generation.”

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