I am old school. I got my first cell phone in 2003 and have not upgraded since. It is a flip phone that makes and receives calls, and sends and accepts text messages. Supposedly it has a camera, but I don’t know how it works.
When I send a text message it is almost like I am deploying smoke signals — choose the right spot, make the fire, get it smokey, start waving the blanket and making letters. It takes just about that long. Each text message is an artisanal product made with painstaking care. To say “hi,” I tap the four button two times, wait a beat and then tap it three times. So, be patient if you want me to text you.
Seamus — my very bright and inquisitive one-year-old — is already very curious about my cell phone. Whenever I am holding it, he wants it. If I am on the phone, he tries to pull it out of my hands. He loves opening and closing it and the noises it makes when messages come in. But it is just a simple phone — no games, no stories, no excitement. It is just an object that he likes.
At the doctor’s office, in line at the post office, in restaurants and on the playground, I see kids not that much older than Seamus using cellphones and hand-held games with a confidence and alacrity that I will never evolve into. I was in a waiting room yesterday and a girl of about four was playing on a small tablet computer. I have never even held a tablet computer in my hands. I don’t even know what games can be played on one of those things.
Seamus and I took the train from New London to Baltimore earlier this year. It was much more comfortable than the bus, and I packed toys for him and crossword puzzles for me and snacks for both of us. It was a six or seven hour trip. I pulled out the crossword once, while he was asleep and draped across my lap. It was not easy (even though it was only a Wednesday) to work on the puzzle around his little body. The rest of the time I was trying to keep him from catapulting down the aisle, helping him play peekaboo with our neighbors, taking him for walks, chit-chatting with his train full of admirers, reading him the same two books over and over and over again, and trying to get him interested in the post-industrial wastelands outside. But all he wanted to do was lick the window.
It was not a relaxing trip, but we had a good time. As we were de-training in Baltimore, I noticed a woman with a two- or three-year-old girl in our car. I had not seen or heard her the entire trip. She had big pink headphones on and was glued to a tiny screen. Her mom was glued to her own slightly larger screen. I felt a twinge of envy. With all that quiet and not touching, she totally could have finished the puzzle, I thought. And then I felt a twinge of sadness. They were missing out on each other. But who knows. Maybe they had just finished a long conversation about semiotics in Sesame Street or the mom had succumbed to cotton mouth after reading many chapters of War and Peace aloud to her little sweetheart. I just saw a moment. But it was a moment of total detachment.
Are there toddler technologies? Yes. In fact, there are tons. I discovered that the $99 nabi JR. tablet is marketed to kids as young as three. It has a 180-degree camera and video recorder. Kids can watch movies, play games, and learn math, reading and whatever else through educational games. Oh, and kids can drop it, smear it with sunflower butter, lick it and it will survive. After reading through the website, I almost felt bad for deprived little Seamus. He should have one. Otherwise the other kids will have an edge on him. I don’t want him to be left behind. I don’t want him to be bored.
Ah, boredom — the leitmotif of my childhood. No television, no computer and no nabi JR. Just books and people and pads of paper for drawing and writing. My mother’s refrain: “Only boring people get bored.” Her implication: Develop a rich inner life, nurture a vivid imagination, cultivate the gift of conversation and you will never be bored.
As it turns out, my mom was a genius, and her assertions about our need to occupy ourselves were spot on and supported by the experts, such as Dr. Teresa Bolton — a professor at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning. She interviewed artists, writers and scientists who all reported that boredom spurred their exploration and creativity. Dr. Bolton concluded “children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”
This made further sense, when I read about a four-year-old in England who went through classic withdrawal after her iPad was taken away. She was using it three or four hours every day. Her parents enrolled her in a digital detox and compulsive behavior therapy, which sounds expensive and stressful. This poor little girl is not alone — half of the parents interviewed for one U.K. survey say they let their babies play with their smartphones or tablets.
Do I want a tiny techie? Nope. I don’t want to be one either. I like my tactile world of newspapers, snapshots and books. I like the heft and texture of blocks and puzzles and games. I like talking to the people I encounter throughout the day — even the casual, non-verbal interchange of two people passing on the street. I like the feeling of wet grass between my toes and squishy mud on my heels.
I want all of that for Seamus too. There will be plenty of time for the world to be mediated, distorted and upended by technology when he is older. For now, and for the next few years, we are saying no to all the beeping, whizzing, vibrating, touch-screen gizmos (as does the American Academy of Pediatrics until the age of two). And we are saying yes to imagination, creativity and a bit of old fashioned boredom.
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RIGHT ON, FIRDA! But don’t let Seamus sit and stare too long; he may end up like my brother! Like it or not, technology is here to stay, and one must get used to it. The trick is, as you explain, to recognize the danger of getting addicted and diverted from the world around. Hi Ho!
Yeah, I think the real challenge is helping kids develop a healthy relationship with technology: it’s not either or, but how. How to teach them to use technology to do good things, but not to let it replace direct interactions or physical activity. PBS Frontline’s “Digital Nation” series is an example of a fantastic and balanced discussion of technology in our lives. One part that really stuck with me is the scene of South Korean schools in which students from a very young age learn how to be kind to one another on social media.
We’ve spent centuries developing social customs and habits for interacting responsibly with all sorts of other technologies, from silverware to cars. We need to do that with digital technology as well.
Thank you so much for this article.
I live a life of irony, as someone who spent 5 yrs behind a computer producing a documentary about the importance of going outside (Play Again). I speak with kids and adults all over the world who struggle to balance screentime and greentime. Not once have I heard a parent say “I wish I introduced screentime/digital technology sooner.”
I agree with Nathan that we need to teach and model healthy relationships with digital technology and I would add that it is no longer either/or but how AND when. You are exercising your choice to delay it and as the parent of two nature loving and now tech savvy teens, I can tell you that I don’t think you will ever regret it.
You are right about the sunflower butter. We gave Roza a little red plastic cassette player when she was 5, and it got full of sand (how??) pretty quickly. Kids just don’t understand “delicate”, “breakable”, “expensive”, “if you break this I’m not going to buy another one”, etc. until they are a bunch older.
And the longer you can keep him from the tech junk the better; and once he gets his hands on it, he will be up to speed in about half an hour. How long did it take us to learn how to use all this crap? A week? Probably less. The details (camera, text) we are not motivated to learn or else we would.
In the old days, the telephone was above my reach, the television lived at someone else’s house, the typewriter wasn’t appealing. It must be hard when the tech-object is so accessible.
But Seamus will remember the feel of grass and the colors of leaves and the sounds of owls. Bouncing banananas teaching him the color yellow he might remember, but it will be as a mental plague, not a memory of real things.
Love from Ellen
ps. Digressions, very likely; hateful language and personal attacks never.
I cannot agree with you more. I live in an outer borough of New York City and am frequently on the subway with parents who give electronic devices of all kinds to their children of almost every age while in transit (and often making noise which none can escape). I also see parents tuned only to their device, completely ignoring their children who are tired or lonely or merely in need of parental attention, love and care. So sad. I am not a Luddite, but there are proper times, uses and places. Many have no technology boundaries. How can this ship be turned around?