Editor's Note: Jonathan Anker is a father of two young children and editor of HLNtv.com's Digital Life and Parenting sections.
Dinnertime in our home is often a musical affair. While prepping food for my two young sons, I’ll flip open the laptop and load some tunes. We’ll keep it going as background music once dinner starts and there are two dominant playlists which always fill the air.
There’s the official one: a collection of alt rock, old school hip-hop, kids’ tunes and '80s music; and there’s the unofficial one, which consists of my preschooler asking “Why?” on indefinite repeat.
“Hey bud, don’t forget to finish your carrots.” Why?
“Because then you’ll be hungry later.” Why?
“Well, your tummy will be empty and then you’ll get out of bed and tell me you want food at 10 p.m.” Why?
And, frequently, as I spot a small hand reaching just above the countertop, I hear myself saying, "Please don’t play with daddy’s phone.” Why?
“Well it’s not for kids and if you’re done with dinner maybe you should go do something else instead.”
I think what I really want to tell him is, “Well it’s not for kids … and I don’t want you becoming a gadget-addicted zombie, seduced by these beautiful little screens at the expense of playing outside, face-to-face interaction with your parents, the ability to think for yourself and more authentic social relationships and experiences.”
Because, you know, I think that would probably be a little bit over the top.
'Have you ever tried taking an iPad away from a 3 year old?'
Smartphones and tablets in the hands of grade-school kids or tweens is one thing. But in my travels across the Babysphere -- from parks and pools to airports, waiting rooms and supermarkets -- I’m consistently struck by just how many toddlers and preschoolers are already playing with these gadgets.
They’ve proven to be fairly irresistible to adults. But for small children? Well, have you ever tried taking an iPad away from a 3-year-old? Your tablet probably still has scratch marks on the back from the deep, frantic clinging of their tiny fingernails.
With everything else young children can be doing, exploring, learning, enjoying, creating -- whether by themselves, with friends or with their parents -- why would we want them to just zone out with a shiny piece of modern technology?
No matter how often I see small children fumbling around with mobile gadgets (like, every day) or think about it (also, like, every day) I still can’t find a single benefit to it -- or at least, not a single benefit which can’t be replicated with the involvement of a parent.
Take, for instance, apps which teach the alphabet, numbers or drawing -- these programs all do a nice job, but it’s nothing a parent can’t teach their child themselves.
Education-focused apps like these -- which are abundant -- are pretty harmless on their own. But that misses the point. They function as gateway drugs to the device itself. Once you introduce a kid to the thrill-a-minute gadget universe, they’ll want to stay there. You’ll see them again just in time for the middle school dance.
Kids don't need digital diversions. Even on a four-hour road trip.
I’ve talked to plenty of parents (great parents, by the way -- caring, involved, fun, excellent moms and dads by any measure) who nonetheless say they rely on their gadgets for things like plane trips, learning, long car rides or stretches of time when they’re too busy to give their children their full attention.
But I’m now almost four years into fatherhood in a busy family with two working parents and frequent travel -- and friends, I’m here to tell you I’ve yet to encounter any situation which just absolutely demanded a digital diversion. They are not necessary.
A little usage here or there is fine. Why not? Kids shouldn’t be kept in the modern-technology dark. The problem is when there is an over-reliance on it in place of more involved parenting.
That four-hour car ride with two children? There was no DVD player, laptop, iAnything, and we all survived just fine. Enjoyed it, even.
The same Etch-a-Sketches, books, dolls, toy cars, action figures or even songs and human conversation we all appreciated while growing up? They still work just fine -- for family road trips or any other situation where you may be tempted to just slip the kid an iPhone and be done with it.
'Children need to learn this stuff early.' No, they don't.
I also hear the argument that introduction to such gadgets is crucial to helping children develop important technical skills for adulthood -- crucial tools in fact for their future success and survival in a digital world. Well, that's not really true.
First of all, since when did we start giving kids things to play with strictly because they served some important future function? Growing up, I played a lot with Legos and Play-Doh. That was critical, because it prepared me for… what, exactly?
And those huge boxes of bright, waxy Crayola crayons we all had? Because we all grew up to be artists, right?
Look, if little Liam gets a basketball this year for Christmas, he will not -- repeat, will not -- become a technophobic hermit last seen waiting for his keyboard to talk back to him while his friends all run off and invent the next Facebook.
And it's not like operating these devices require constant exposure to master. Point, click, pinch, zoom. Alright! Think we got it.
Operating this beautifully simplified technology is so easy a monkey can do it. I'm not being facetious. Literally, monkeys can do it. See?
But still we continue to cede parenting turf and precious parenting time to iPhones and Androids.
Good question, buddy. Really good question.