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Why I won’t buy my 3-year-old an iPad

Back in the grand old days of summer, my husband, daughter and I were attending an outdoor concert — something we have done since before our 3-year-old was a twinkle in her father’s eye.

Toddler with iPad

Whenever a kid-friendly concert or festival comes around, we pack the wagon and the bright pink headphones and it’s better than a day at any amusement park. At this particular event, we ended up sitting near a couple with a 2 1/2 year old girl.

“Joy! A companion for our daughter!” we thought. “They’ll play the day away.” That was until her parents pulled out the iPad.

As the day went on, they relaxed in the sun, got up and danced and chatted with friends. But not their small child — she sat, firmly on the blanket, barely blinking. Our girl soon found other playmates, moseyed around with them, danced circles around us and got dirty, while this child didn’t budge. I couldn’t help but feel sad for the young girl. “She missed the entire day,” I later told my husband. Her parents might as well have kept her home with a babysitter. She didn’t get to experience the music, the dancing or the dozens of children at this incredible event. She wasn’t even there.

Screen time is becoming the norm

While this case was rather extreme, I do notice this trend happening more and more. A stroll in the park is accompanied by an iPad or a mini pink computer marketed to toddlers. A trip to the grocery store means a half hour of playing with mom’s phone in order to keep the peace. Recently, we stopped by a popular park where I noticed a group of elementary-schoolers crowded around a tree, playing independently on devices — completely disengaged from one another. There was no talking, socializing or even running around burning off endless energy that I suppose was being absorbed into a screen instead.

While this phenomenon is pretty widely accepted among adults — many of whom spend all day on a computer, eat dinner with their phones at the table and check Facebook before even getting out of bed — my heart breaks when I see parents so easily accepting this fate for their children. I wonder why they don’t see how harmful this kind of disconnection is, especially when it begins in toddlerhood. I suppose they think they’re keeping their children content and entertained, but don’t they see what they’re denying them?

Magic is everywhere

While adults may struggle to see the value in simplicity — a puddle of mud or the changing leaves, even a dead fish floating in a pond — children do not. For them, the magic is everywhere and it’s our job to let them experience what we perhaps no longer can find a thrill in. Maybe it’s more of a struggle now for us to see it, as we all live in an over-stimulating and technologically-dependent world. But the beauty of the simple can be present for children of any generation, if we allow them that.

Many believe these devices are not only good and educational for young children, but also necessary. But I would argue that toddlers and preschoolers have brains that are like sponges. They pick up every bit of knowledge that’s around them and they certainly don’t need a screen to learn. In fact, screen time may actually inhibit young children’s attention spans and adaptability to learn. In other words, it does more harm than good when introduced at the increasingly younger ages we’re seeing more and more.

Parents these days are so worried about their kids “getting ahead” and knowing everything they should know for their age. But the truth is, we have to stop operating from our own egos and just let our kids be kids. They are learning all the time by doing so. Play is proven to be more beneficial to children than anything. It teaches them social skills, body awareness and a sense of self. But we are terrified of letting our kids be free — and if freedom can’t be experienced in childhood anymore, when can it? We are setting our kids up for a disconnected, over-stressed life and many of us don’t even see it coming.

It’s the way of the times

While I don’t believe small doses of any technology to be overtly harmful, when it comes to young kids, I don’t see the value in it either. I’ve had parents tell me that my daughter will fall behind if she doesn’t have an iPad — and at the age of 3! “It’s the way of the times,” one of them said. “My kid learned her ABCs from her iPad,” said another. That’s wonderful and I surely don’t doubt a child’s ability to absorb information from a device. I, for one, am fully capable of singing the ABCs in the tub or on a walk and with minimal effort. I happen to know them quite well, in fact. So I think we’ll take our chances.

Technologies are changing all the time — and getting simpler and simpler — and kids can learn to use them at any age. So there is no harm in waiting a few years. In fact, when children are introduced to technology later, they actually have a better understanding of what they are viewing on the screen and can absorb the information far more readily. On the contrary, kids who grow accustomed to learning from devices like iPads at an earlier age have smaller vocabularies than those who learn from conventional or “old-school” methods. So while many parents of the iPad generation hold the belief that the earlier they get their kid to understand new technologies the better, it seems that the opposite is true.

In my (maybe totally out-there) opinion, I’m starting to believe parents these days are either so misguided by their own addictions to technology, or are hiding behind their so-called educational value in order to pacify their kids sans guilt. But what’s ironic is that had their children not grown accustomed to devices, they wouldn’t need pacifying to begin with.

They don’t need to be entertained

In the past year, I actually had a parent ask me, if I don’t have an iPad, “what do you do in the car?” Well, drive from place to place, for one. I don’t feel every car ride has to be exciting or even stimulating to my child. But more often than not, it is… and without the use of a screen. We talk, sing and play eye-spy. And sometimes, we are just quiet.

It hadn’t once occurred to me that I was depriving my kid of anything by allowing her to look out the window from her car seat and talk about birds. Since she’s never been handed an iPad in the car or anywhere else, she’s quite pleased to do just that. On longer car rides, we haven’t had a problem either. We routinely take 3-hour car rides to the beach in the summer and in that case, we bring a few books, look out for cows and it proves pretty enjoyable. It has been my experience that when a child becomes accustomed to entertaining herself and making fun out of the mundane, she becomes quite good at it.

Like every parent, I’ve had my fair share of public tantrums and pain-in-the-butt grocery store trips, but it doesn’t strike me as a good reason to turn to a device. I want my child to learn how to act appropriately in those situations and I don’t see how she’d do that if she grew accustomed to zoning out while mom does the shopping. After going on four years of grocery store trips, I now feel like I have a helper, rather than a rebel (most of the time). I’m starting to see the payoff of under-entertaining with devices. At the same time, I’ve noticed the parents who have depended greatly on technology (practically since birth) are caught in the trap of never being able to be without it. It takes struggle and repetition to set the standard of behavior. Without that, and without the gadget, they’re simply a hot mess — so the parent and child cling to it desperately.

Bottom line

We live in a world where technology saves lives, creates jobs and has endless benefits — but the one thing it can’t do is make a childhood. That is accomplished by exploration, by going out into the world and discovering who they want to be in it. If our kids don’t experience life before screens, how will they even know the worth of what they see on them? Discovering who they are as people is what creates the creators, the innovators. An iPad may be able to teach a child to read, but life teaches them how to think.

More about kids and technology

When your iPad becomes a babysitter
Creative ways to put your cell phone on lockdown
Managing technology and family

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