Screen time

So a friend of mine sent me this: 

and I (librarian) find it very amusing. I mean, a two year old with an Australian accent saying “geospatial tagging”!? You had me at hello, sweetie pie. You might be my long lost child.

However, I have some issues with the idea of kids and the idea of digital natives.

I will preface this with some disclaimers:

  • We own an iPad. I would guess that 85% of the apps on the iPad are ones Gabe downloaded to teach/play with Simon.
  • I own an iPhone, I have 1 app for Simon, which he doesn’t really like.
  • Simon has his own hand-me-down iPhone, that he inherited from Grandma. It’s in the car somewhere, and I never reloaded it with apps like I planned. His biggest infatuation with iPhones is all about looking at pictures. Of himself. Nothing else, just himself. “Look at pittttchers?” he asks? ALL THE TIME if my phone is out.
  • Although this morning, he found a toy cell phone and he held it up to me and said, “Smile!” like I do to him, so I guess he KIND OF gets it that the phone doubles as a camera.
  • Whenever I have my laptop out, he wants to “talk to people” which means FaceTime/Skype with my family. He believes they live in the computer.
We love the iPad and Simon loves it as well. It is absolutely amazing what he has learned on that thing. He has never held it on his own or been left alone with it because- well because that’s stupid and it’s probably the second most expensive thing we own, next to my laptop. But he can recognize upper and lower case letters due to it (and probably additional things- magnets etc). Recognizing lower case letters is often tough for kids, and he’s got it down pat. Lower case Q and P are a bit confusing, but he recognizes that and says, “It looks like a p” when it’s a q. Whatever. He enjoys a multitude of apps and fun games. Even ebooks that we love like Dr. Seuss and we caved and got some Elmo ebooks, Harold and the Purple Crayon, etc.
At any rate, working closely with kids ages 7-12 the last year and a half I’ve noticed something that has really really really surprised the shit out of me. And that thing is- screens. Computer screens, phone screens, any kind of screen, distracts kids SO MUCH that they often cannot focus on anything else. I VERY OFTEN (every day) have to remove a kid from the area where I’m helping them with homework, because they are UNABLE to focus on their work if there is a screen on EVEN within their peripheral vision. A SIXTH grader can’t even focus when a TWO YEAR OLD is playing a Sesame Street ABC game 10 feet behind them. Their eyes are gridlocked to the screen, even if it’s baby stuff like Big Bird. It. Is. Amazing. I would go as far as to say shocking. I can’t believe it.
I’ve made rules- no games in the HHC until you’ve read a book for 20 minutes- to slow down the mad rush for the computers and prolong the screens from being on. I’ve turned off the monitors on our Early Literacy stations if no kids are playing on them, to steer students’ eyes away from the rotating image of the screensaver. EVEN THE SCREENSAVERS ARE ENTICING!
Why is it like this? I don’t know. I have some ideas, but they’re just speculation. I think kids zone out in front of screens and can’t wait to zone out. They’re intrigued, sure. We should be feeding this need for intrigue in lots and lots of ways. But the reality is, their homework is still pencil to paper, thinking and sitting and talking gets it done. I think if kids are supposed Digital Natives, then the education system should be working more towards tapping this obvious zone of intrigue. However: is it all good?
I don’t believe my kid knows his alphabet and the sounds the letters make because he plays with an iPad. I think it’s because we talk about letters everywhere we go and the sounds they make. There are COUNTLESS studies on the amount of learning that goes into one on one interaction and play with a parent or caregiver versus planting oneself in front of a screen.  As with most things, I think moderation is key. And I think most kids don’t get that moderation.
So when Gabe asks me if I “want the iPad” for our bedtime ritual at night, I almost always say no. Gabe can play with him on the iPad all he wants. I think it’s a good thing, and I know it’s in moderation. However, books leave much more up to interpretation, the images don’t move when you touch them, but you can still imagine they do. And I like the feeling of me, and my kid, in a comfy bed, with a book, turning pages that rip if you do it too fast, and bringing home piles of new books when the old ones get boring.
As much as I know (and love) that my kid is a digital native, and I think it’s adorable when he attempts to toggle the images on my laptop screen thinking it’s a touch screen like the iPad is…I worry about this generation of digital natives and how long they can be entertained by anything. I worry about the imbalance of technology in education and between social classes of kids who DON’T have iPads or apps on them to teach letter recognition. There’s a giant divide in the ability to provide the devices and tools, in schools and at home, and there’s the American belief that something easier (planting your child in front of an “educational” screen) is a better and quicker shortcut to learning.
Right now, my son loves those tech toys, and is learning on target. But he also loves his toys that make no noise at all. Blocks, shapes, trucks and airplanes that do nothing, but roll or tumble. If toys and computers do all the imagining for the kids, who will imagine up all the great inventions of the future??
I really really really don’t want Simon to be one of those kids who can’t ‘focus if there’s a screen on within eyesight. I hope we manage to balance everything out so that happens.
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