Earlier this morning, between trying to drink a whole mug of tea before it got cold and trying to wrangle the children into the city for some culture, I had the good fortune to get wrapped up in a conversation on Twitter with fellow ‘twitterer’ (that’s what it’s called, I checked) Petit Dictionairre. It’s not the first time this particular conversation has arisen online and it was on a subject that many like to wax verbose about. That’s right, it’s the dreaded TABLET ADDICTION! Now don’t misconstrue, I’m not talking about your average, common-or-garden addiction to prescription painkillers. That’s a very different kettle of fish and not something that I’m likely to weigh in on.
No, I’m talking about the recent interest that many parents have taken in the big question about whether too much time spent staring at an iPad, Kindle, Hudl or any similar tablet is particularly disruptive to a child’s development, attention span, manners, eyeballs or any other utterly vital body part or psychological norm. Does too much tablet use frazzle the pre-frontal cortex? How much is too much? Is two hours too much on one go? What software can I get to lock the tablet so I don’t have to worry about it? Is little Jimmy going to be driven to serial murder if I let him play too much Angry Birds?
It’s a hot topic and to properly consider it, you first have to consider where this particular panic sits historically. Since time immemorial the press has taken great pleasure in setting parents jimmies ablaze with moral panics about literally everything that could be considered even remotely fun. They do this because human beings are fundamentally pessimistic creatures that automatically assume that anything someone does for any length of time must be a) addictive and b) somehow damaging. We just can’t have a good time. They also do it because creating what is known collectively as ‘moral panics’ does an excellent job at selling newspapers and pleasing their shareholders/advertisers/reptilian overlords.
Most recently tablets have taken the brunt of the questioning but over the past 100 years we have seen it happen to almost everything. Video games have taken a real hit as harbingers of moral decay. In the early 2000s lawyer Jack Thompson got himself a fair few headlines dragging some mature-rated games through the mud, calling them murder simulators. If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll find that recent evidence suggests video games, especially creative ones like Minecraft can actually aid personal development and have educational applications.
Before that, television was the bad guy, rotting the brains of generations of defenceless children. As we now know, television is as much a tool for learning as it is for mindless media consumption or video nasties. Many people without access to education have been able to learn because someone plonked them in front of Sesame Street, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even just a nature documentary. For many, television was a window on the world. Can we criticise tablet devices as being anything less?
Going back even further, possibly past the point of ridiculousness, in the 1800s it was often lauded by scholars that reading fiction left your mind flabby and would make you unsatisfied with reality. This was driven by the popular notion that reading was purely for scholastic development. Heaven forfend people do it for fun. That’s the devil’s work!
Now here’s where I mark out my personal stake in this issue before swinging back around for the inevitable conclusion.
I have three kids. They all have tablets. One of them actually has two (one of them was co-opted from mum). They all use them in different ways but perhaps the most relevant here is Morgan (5). Morgan has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As a result, the way he is able to communicate, to play and to interact is very different from the other two. Because of this he gets easily double the tablet time of the other two. Morgan can:
- learn phonics and other basics in a more personal non-classroom environment
- listen to music that calms him down
- watch videos (restricted by us) in a personalised setting
- use camera apps to take pictures of himself and his surroundings (he does this a lot)
- read books, often interactive stories with motion that appeals to his way of engaging with the story
- play creatively on art apps
- control the music in the car (that one surprised even us)
- take personal time away to recharge when having to interact with a lot of people or in a busy environment.
These are all vital things for Morgan. Taking it away can be like taking away someone’s glasses or walking stick but we do manage this alongside other things like physical toys, books, tv and we are also careful to stop tablet time an hour before bed. This actually applies to all the kids because the blue light can cause sleep disruption. After this time we read and play Orchard games together as a family.
Tablet use like this is not uncommon in families with an ASD child and it can be a vital tool when used appropriately.
The other two kids also use tablets in a constructive way. In our household things can get… intense. Morgan can often get very excitable and Claudia has some not-yet-diagnosed-as-a-thing issues with just calming the hell down. This means that often, having exceeded the time they’re willing to spend with each other, they are encouraged to disappear to their respective corners of the house or living room and have some quiet time. One thing they may choose to so during this time is use their Kids Kindles.
Claudia (4) gets much less tablet time but she uses the tablet to watch a (again restricted) selection of YouTube Kids videos and also to play age-appropriate games. At her age it’s mostly a toy but we’re also keen to show her educational applications and she enjoys learning through playing educational apps based on things she already enjoys like Doc McStuffins or Peppa Pig.
Marshall, the eldest (8), uses tablets in a similar way but as he also has access to the Xbox and a Nintendo DS, this is something that we manage carefully. His main interest is in using Minecraft to build things based on ideas he’s had for stories or to play collaboratively with his friends. Currently he’s more into books and Pokemon cards so we’re not currently too worried about over-exposure.
So, in summary (I knew we’d get here eventually, how’re you doing?) I think we can agree on a few things.
1. Parenting is key
As with anything they are exposed to it’s up to us as parents to ensure that the content they are exposed to is appropriate. A tablet is just a delivery device for that content. You should be as involved here as you are with their exposure to tv and movies but keep in mind that they are little learning machines and that too much restriction can be damaging too.
2. Limits should be set
All things in moderation. It’s universally wise but applies specifically here too. Tablet use should form just part of how a child engages with the world and it’s no substitute for walks in the woods, playing with action figures or doing arts and crafts on real paper. Set limits on how long the devices can be used for and supervise when appropriate.
3. It’s just a tool
20 years ago all we had was tv and books, 20 yrs from now they could be beaming it into our brains from space. The important thing is to remember that like tv, books or space brain lasers, these things are just tools. We can either use them or not but it makes no sense to needlessly demonise them.
4. It’s 2017
Like it or not you live in a multimedia-driven society. If you bring your kids up in a house with no tv, all the furniture upcycled from orange crates or made of wicker and you all sit around a piano in hemp cardigans singing ironic hipster melodies from the 1940s then they are almost certainly going to turn out really weird. You know how there’s always that sort of gaunt, shy one? Yeah that’s gonna be your kid.
The title of this piece can be explained by the following tweet.