Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Device-Free Christmas: Post-Holiday Musings

My husband and I didn't buy any personal digital devices for our seven and eight-year old kids for Christmas this year. Our youngest didn't ask for any, and our eldest asked for a digital reader only two weeks prior to the holiday. By then most of the shopping had been done.

I did consider giving my kids a device even thought it was not at the top of their lists. I sometimes wonder if holding off will cause them to be technologically behind their peers. I also have hopes of them mastering Chinese or long division through educational games.

In the end, I reason that occasionally sharing my laptop with my kids and having a basic Wii gaming system for the family is enough. I opted to give the girls some of the traditional toys, games and books that were on their list. So did Santa and lots of doting grandparents. We had a wonderful Christmas Day playing a little bit with each gift. My kids were truly spoiled.

So I was surprised when by 8:30 am the morning after Christmas my children were bored. And arguing with each other.  Neither wanted to play alone, but they were unable to come to terms with each other about what to play together. They remained at odds all day. And the next.

How could this be? Visions about what could have been danced in my head. Wouldn't my kids be better entertained with a digital reader, a iPod Touch, a DS? Perhaps if I had given them something - anything - computerized and new for Christmas, I could have given myself some peace in return?

Isn't that the biggest reason that we give our young kids a device? I would venture to say that it is, even more than the hope for educational benefits. Kids aren't easy. Many (including mine) have a hard time playing by themselves, get easily bored, and even start misbehaving - no fun for anyone.

Last night I studied a little boy, no more than two, playing with an iPad at a nice restaurant. He was certainly well-behaved (quiet) as long as the device was in front of him. As soon as it was taken away, he was fidgeting in his seat, and eventually started pushing his chair around the floor, bumping into other customers, until his parents carried him away. Giving him back the iPad seemed like the logical thing to do.

So here comes the argument to the contrary.

Early childhood experts do not recommend any screen time for young kids. There are a load of reasons. Screen time in this age group can interfere with normal cognitive, social, and physical development. Give a young kid a screen, and you may introduce a host of problems such as obesity, sleep problems, and issues with attention, learning and social interactions.

Freelance columnist Julia Steiny echoes this sentiment. Her article, The Jury's In, Screen Time Hurts Little Kids, explores a new report by early-childhood advocates Alliance for Childhood and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. She adds her own thoughts:
[Computers are] fabulous. But they're not for young children whose bodies and beings are hardwired to upload the realities of their immediate worlds.  Let them learn, according to their natures, not according to advertising’s genius at selling stuff.  Children need trees, friends, bikes, like that.  In time, kids will pick up basic computer skills with frightening agility, so there’s absolutely no need to start early.
OK. Good. But what about my concern that my kids may be behind the technical eight-ball? That notion may be unfounded. Ms. Steiny quotes the report:
There is no evidence to support the popular view — heavily promoted by companies that sell electronic media — that children must start early if they are to succeed in the digital age. 
I guess I need to focus on the positive. Although winter break has been long and at times frustrating, our device-free Christmas may work out in the long run. My kids have engaged in board games, reading, baseball (Santa brought a new bat, ball and glove), and playdates. (However, we have had plenty of screen time between family Wii games and managed TV programs since school is out.)

All the disagreements between my kids (and even some with their friends) could be teaching them how to compromise, deal with disappointment, and even stand up for themselves. And the ability to deal with boredom or have moments of comfortable solitude are skills that take time to learn. Sherry Turkle studies the impact of computers on society for MIT, and she says, "If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”

So what's the rush to buy a personal device? At very least I saved money by staying out of Best Buy this season. And in truth, I know that my kids will pick up the technology quickly once they take an interest. It might not be long before we go down that road, and hopefully we'll reap some larger benefits in the meantime.

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