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Consider the possibility of kids’ self-regulation of digital media

Are iPads bad for little children? I ask that metaphorically, for two reasons: because iPads represent a host of tablets and other touchscreen devices children seem to play with joyfully and intuitively, and because that attraction makes it extra hard to imagine kids could self-regulate that iPad play. And yet they do.

Take Gideon, for example (“Giddy” to himself and his family). In some of the best reporting I’ve seen on kids and technology hands down, Giddy’s mom Hanna Rosin – national correspondent at The Atlantic – tells what happened with him and “his” iPad when he wasn’t quite 2 years old. His first app was Talking Baby Hippo, in which the pudgy protagonist would laugh when Giddy poked it on the screen. “At first [Gideon] would get frustrated trying to zoom between screens, or not knowing what to do when a message popped up. But after about two weeks, he figured all that out,” Rosin writes in a thorough, thoughtful article. Even though Giddy’s story (I’ll get to the good part in a second) is only a tiny piece of it, it illustrates a notion I think it would behoove us parents to entertain: that our children have some built-in self-regulation capabilities, that it’s not strictly up to us to regulate and enwisen them and that it’s good to look for and nurture those tendencies.

The fascinating part of Giddy’s story

Rosin thought she’d test out Marc Prensky’s “extreme parenting philosophy” – the one that says requiring kids to consume text in books instead of interact with content on screens is more about believing in (maybe clinging to) where we came from than where we are right now. So he treats all of his son’s media the same – books, TV, apps, whatever. It got Rosin herself to wonder if “books [are] always, in every situation, inherently better than screens?” Her other kids are 9 and 12, and her daughter, “after all, uses books as a way to avoid social interaction, while my son uses the Wii to bond with friends.”

So she decided to conduct an experiment, she wrote: “For six months, I would let my toddler live by the Prensky rules. I would put the iPad in the toy basket, along with the remote-control car and the Legos. Whenever he wanted to play with it, I would let him.” Her account of what happened was a lot like what we experienced in our family with an 11-year-old after getting his first Xbox 360 console and games. There was a slightly obsessive quality to Gideon’s iPad and my son’s Xbox play for a while. Then we experienced something quite similar to what Rosin describes: “After about 10 days [it took longer for us, but there wasn't quite the same level of obsession], the iPad fell out of his rotation, just like every other toy does. He dropped it under the bed and never looked for it. It was completely forgotten for about six weeks. Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often.”

As you think about that, keep in mind that it wasn’t like Gideon was getting bored with just one toy. The variety and number of apps available for the iPad make it so that the iPad is a bundle of many toys, and Gideon tired of the whole package.

Do try this at home?

It wouldn’t go like that for all kids, of course, but it’d probably be hard to find out. Because in these times of overparenting – with all the pressure there is on parents to get every detail right (however that’s defined) – there aren’t many experiments like Rosin’s being conducted in American households. Can we allow enough time to see if our kids will self-regulate (i.e., get bored with the device or medium in question) before we intervene?

Rosin cites the view of Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, that it’s not like these media and devices are going away. By three years ago (2010), “two-thirds of children ages 4 to 7 had used an iPhone, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which studies children’s media,” she writes. So the question of whether touchscreens are bad for kids is academic, as they say, and academics like Calvert have moved on to ask how kids learn and have fun using apps on touchscreens. [See also my post on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's study about younger kids' social media use.]

Sidebar: Are we passing on our biases?

In her research for the article, Rosin talked with parents observing how their kids were playing with apps on iPads and felt she’d tapped into “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.” Later she mentions the book Screen Time, by journalist Lisa Guernsey, who wrote something in sync with findings by researchers at Harvard looking into young people’s attitudes toward media. “Two sentiments we heard from a lot of young people,” Carrie James, director of the research project said: that “the Internet is simply for fun” (therefore inconsequential) and that “they feel a lack of efficacy online – if they see something unsettling they tend to ignore it or move on because they don’t feel they can change anything online.”

Where could the young survey respondents could’ve gotten that? Guernsey may have the answer. Rosin writes that “one of the most interesting points Guernsey makes is about the importance of parents’ attitudes toward media. If they treat screen time like junk food, or ‘like a magazine at the hair salon’—good for passing the time in a frivolous way but nothing more—then the child will fully absorb that attitude, and the neurosis will be passed to the next generation.”

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  1. Thanks for the responses.

    I wish I could be as carefree about it as Prensky and not feel like I have to regulate it. Or, I wish I would have been as consistent about the regulation early on as you seem to have been Lisa. This messy middle is fraught with angst and uncertainty. I think my biggest failure as a parent is a lack of consistency and even communication with my kids about the expectations. It seems like a constant struggle. Ugh, teenagers!

    April 12, 2013
  2. Lisa Noble #

    Such smart stuff (the article, and the comments). As both an elementary school teacher, and a parent of 10 and 12 year old boys, I want a support group, like Will does, but I’m also a little disturbed by the tendency of my younger students (I teach Grade 4-8) to see the device in their pocket exclusively as a toy. I encourage my students to bring their devices to class, so we can research, or share ideas with a brainstorming tool, or take notes, or contribute to a co-operative activity….so that they can see the Internet, and the device that they access it with as something other than a consumable. Many of my students who have laptops as part of their learning plan are the ones I need to pry off Youtube and gaming to have them use the device for something collaborative with the class – the 10 day rule is not working here.

    My own kids are currently Minecraft addicts (they do have time limits) – but there’s also a healthy dose of Scratch in there, and one of my favourite times of the week is one night a week at the Y – older boy has judo, I have a hi/low class, and younger boy and a couple of other friends spend some time in drop-in gym, then gather around a laptop and teach each other stuff. Last week,they made a movie (credits and all) on MovieMaker; another night, they build a game on Scratch. It’s terrifically collaborative, there’s tons of learning going on, and they’re social like crazy, face to face.

    So far, I’m not having to do a lot of worrying about Facebook and Insta – they know they have to check with us about downloading apps, and neither has accounts yet. Neither has a smartphone yet, and I think that makes a difference.

    I grew up with an hour a day screen time limit for TV – I had to decide what I wanted to watch. My kids have the same limit – they like to break it into 15-20 minute chunks. My younger guy has discovered that he feels ill and grumpy if he spends a longer chunk of time on screen, which helps. I try to model the same thing during my at-home time (which is a challenge). Learning to make choices about your time is a life skill, I think.

    April 11, 2013
    • Anne #

      Thanks for your comment, Lisa. Lots of great parenting pointers in there! I love how you illustrate how many types of uses there are for a single device or screen (I’m not sure how people can still generalize about some sort of undifferentiated “screen time”) and how different kids need different kinds and levels of “help with self-regulation,” as Will put it. “Y Night” is a great idea – better, I think, than just unplug night (or sabbath or shabbat, etc.). Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter, it has become a bit of a cliché, and why not do something for positive reasons? Did you happen to see my post about BYOT in the Forsyth County (Ga.) school district? Wonder if their experience makes sense to you. Tx again.

      April 11, 2013
  3. “…OR a support group.”

    April 11, 2013
  4. Hey Anne,

    Just wondering what if anything changes when it becomes more than a toy and a social connection instead. My struggle now as a parent is helping my kids self-regulate FB, twitter, Instagram and Minecraft. I’ve been giving my kids the room to set their own limits, but…let’s just say it’s been more than 10 days.

    Definitely not getting all the details right at this point. Looking for the Manual 2.0 on a support group. ;0)

    Thanks for the consistently great stuff you’re writing and sharing.

    April 11, 2013
    • Anne #

      Thanks kindly for your comment, Will. I get the feeling every parent’s looking for Manual 2.0 (or a support group) right now – goes with the media-shift territory, it seems. Every family and every kid within a family is so individual that it’s pretty impossible to make generalizations about how to help kids self-regulate. Some are better than others at it (or have other interests beyond socializing) that help them. I suspect it’s a balance between self- and parental regulation that changes with maturity and gets calibrated based on mutual communication and trust. One of your kids may need more help from you than the other – for a while, perhaps – because it’s not just individual, it’s also situational, depending on what’s going on in their peer groups, right? None of this is anything you don’t already know, but what I try to remember is what I’m reminded of by my amazing friends who teach in virtual worlds and digital games like Minecraft (not to mention James Paul Gee), is that mistakes or trial and error are essential to progress and learning in games and in life.

      April 11, 2013
    • Anne #

      Will, I had an afterthought about self-regulation that I’d love to run by you: that what we parents sometimes forget to factor in is the huge difference between our media experience growing up and our children’s. A friend of mine said one of his children is an avid reader (read the Harry Potter series before age 7), while another kept losing books she was given to read. So he gave the latter a tablet to read books on, and she figured out how to listen to the books rather than read them. That raised a question rather than a reaction (maybe it’s helpful, under the shifted media and other conditions we now face as families, to work a question “out loud” with our kids, when one comes up, rather than have a predetermined response or decision that “this is the way we do things”?). My friend’s question was simply whether reading or listening to a book is better if the former gives rise to avoidance and the latter doesn’t – it’s still the same book. Who knows? Depends on the kid, the context, etc. But that dad’s question (along with your and Lisa’s comments) illustrate for me that (to borrow John Seely Brown’s metaphor) parenting, just like learning, is now more like whitewater kayaking than piloting a steamship. Though a lot of the wisdom, values, etc. we got from our parents is the same, we’re also working more from/with tacit knowledge we gain and act on as we go rather than from the explicit knowledge of “this is the way we’ve always done it.” You know?

      April 11, 2013

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