Apps don’t teach our children. Or do they?

A Fisher-Price site showing Laugh & Learn mobile apps. (AP Photo)
A Fisher-Price site showing Laugh & Learn mobile apps. (AP Photo)

The news that the apps to teach alphabets and other things may not actually help much sure does ring true. It also, to use another cliche (is there an app for that?), hits home.

I have never been too keen on letting our kids use our phones and play with apps, but I have definitely gotten softer, particularly during this harsh winter.

Our boys are, lucky for us, outdoorsy guys. They like sports, scooter rides and discovering things “out there.” But when the temps got tough this winter, I added a few apps to my phone, thinking they’d help my 4-year-old with his letters while I was busy trying to clean up another pile of salt and snow and mush from the entryway. And, of course, both boys loved them. When someone came to our house for a bit last week, I handed the younger guy the phone so he could play a game or two and I could have a full conversation with our visitor. The guilt was palpable. And reading this news just added to it.

The thing is, the more I let our younger son play with my phone or watch a show, the less he wants to go outside. I know that’s not a groundbreaking discovery. But I can honestly say there is nothing he likes more than a screen and it is breathtaking. And not in a “wow, that’s beautiful!” way.

It’s just that those screens are there. And he knows they are there because I am constantly searching for my phone, checking email while dinner is cooking, logging on to do just one more thing. Same goes for his dad. So he and his brother are surrounded by these tantalizing toys that hold much magic in them.

What would be better for him, and for me? Well, I think just about anything. How about a walk in the woods, where he can learn in 3D? A scooter ride around the block. A new book. It is so easy to get lazy and let him get sucked in if we’re not careful, all under the auspices of “Well, at least he’s learning something.”

But when I mentioned all of my concerns to my husband, he came right back: “But that’s where the jobs will be. And I’m only kind of kidding.” He’s got a point. Our boy may not learn his letters or math via app. That’s really up to us and a variety of teaching methods. But he is likely getting something out of those apps and my phone, such as fine motor skills and a knowledge of the technological world of which he is a part.

A colleague mentioned how her tween can do Power Point presentations and organizes her apps or Pinterest picks into various folders. And that’s a good thing. So if I keep my boys from technology, I’m depriving them, right? Is letting a child play with apps for a few minutes a day really going to ruin his life? Or will it only help him in some way in the future? I have to remind myself: His childhood today isn’t what my childhood years ago. Just because we didn’t have these devices doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have used them. What would I have missed? Talking on the phone? Watching more Sesame Street?

I can see how easy it would be to rely solely on technology, and believe  claims by Fisher-Price and other companies to be true. Our 4-year-old whines any time we turn his one show off, even if we warn him it’s going off in 5 minutes/as soon as this over. He begs for the phone. And it’s tempting — his attention span when he’s staring at a screen is pretty much like no other.

But as with most things when it comes to parenting, deciding how much is too much, and enforcing that, takes work. It takes saying no, and it takes a little more energy from energy-deprived parents who sometimes could use just a few more minutes to do everything and anything.

In fact, as I’m about to finish this little post, they are right now sitting with the iPad and my iPhone so I can do a bit of work on yet another snow day. (I promised them some screentime after they cleaned rooms and the play area. I am a walking cliche myself, no?)

And so, thanks researchers. If nothing else, the study is a good reminder to make sure our kids stop and smell the roses, and remind them that our phones don’t always smell as good. (I can hear the technologists now: Hey, who’s working on the scented app? Need to talk.)

After this, it’s time to play in the snow. Again.

 

Amy Joyce is the editor and a writer for On Parenting.
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Amy Joyce · March 14