Lent started this week for us Orthodox. For my kids, that means a fast from TV and electronic games. No more Minecraft on iPhone or iPad, at least not till Pascha.
After reading this Atlantic Monthly piece by Hanna Rosin on what iPads and the like might be doing to young brains, I’m not at all sure how much we’re going to allow back into our children’s lives once Pascha is here. Rosin begins at a conference for people who develop apps for children. And it is there that she finds something very interesting:
I had come to the developers’ conference partly because I hoped that this particular set of parents, enthusiastic as they were about interactive media, might help me out of this conundrum, that they might offer some guiding principle for American parents who are clearly never going to meet the academy’s ideals, and at some level do not want to. Perhaps this group would be able to articulate some benefits of the new technology that the more cautious pediatricians weren’t ready to address. I nurtured this hope until about lunchtime, when the developers gathering in the dining hall ceased being visionaries and reverted to being ordinary parents, trying to settle their toddlers in high chairs and get them to eat something besides bread.
I fell into conversation with a woman who had helped develop Montessori Letter Sounds, an app that teaches preschoolers the Montessori methods of spelling.
She was a former Montessori teacher and a mother of four. I myself have three children who are all fans of the touch screen. What games did her kids like to play?, I asked, hoping for suggestions I could take home.
“They don’t play all that much.”
Really? Why not?
“Because I don’t allow it. We have a rule of no screen time during the week,” unless it’s clearly educational.
No screen time? None at all? That seems at the outer edge of restrictive, even by the standards of my overcontrolling parenting set.
“On the weekends, they can play. I give them a limit of half an hour and then stop. Enough. It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.”
Her answer so surprised me that I decided to ask some of the other developers who were also parents what their domestic ground rules for screen time were. One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home. At one point I sat with one of the biggest developers of e-book apps for kids, and his family. The toddler was starting to fuss in her high chair, so the mom did what many of us have done at that moment—stuck an iPad in front of her and played a short movie so everyone else could enjoy their lunch. When she saw me watching, she gave me the universal tense look of mothers who feel they are being judged. “At home,” she assured me, “I only let her watch movies in Spanish.”
By their pinched reactions, these parents illuminated for me 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. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way.
The essay doesn’t reach any firm conclusions, perhaps because there are none that can yet be reached, at least not scientifically. The phenomenon is just too new. Still, it’s a little unnerving that so many of the people who make this stuff for kids are extremely wary about the time they let their own children spend with it.