In a recent N.Y. Times article, Nick Bilton tells an interesting story that has a familiar ring. Having lunch – or trying to have lunch – with his sister, their conversation is repeatedly interrupted by the quarreling of her 4 and 7 year old children. His sister then performs what he calls “an act of magic”, which means she pulled out two iPads producing immediate quiet. The children play games and watch videos while the adults are at last able to have a conversation.
His sister then expresses the conflict many parents feel in a similar situation. She doesn’t want to give her children iPads at the dinner table, but she does it so that the children are occupied, the adults can eat in peace, and other people in the restaurant won’t be disturbed. But she worries about whether this is bad for the children, and whether it is giving them the message that it is O.K. to use electronics at the dinner table.
Bilton confesses that he didn’t have an answer, and correctly points out that people have opinions, but “no one has a true scientific understanding of what the future might hold for a generation raised on devices.” He then goes on to give the opinions of numerous experts on this subject. These begin with the observation that children vary, and some are more sensitive to a great deal of screen time. The observation is made that the brain is highly sensitive to stimuli, and if children spend too much time with technology, and less time interacting with people, that could hinder the development of certain communication skills.
The question is then asked whether a child playing with crayons at dinner rather than a coloring app on an iPad will be a more socialized person. This seems like a good question given the familiar crayons and coloring games that appear almost universally whenever one arrives at a restaurant with children. The answer given by another “expert” is that in either case children are not engaged with the people around them, and that, “there are value-based lessons for children to talk to the people during a meal.”
Bilton points out that while his niece and nephew were staring into the screens they neither were engaged in any type of conversation, nor staring into space thinking, as he and his sister did in similar situations. He says that is where the risks appear. What he thinks the risks are is not clear. After all, sitting and thinking does not seem like such a bad idea. Perhaps he is referring to the view offered by still another “expert” that children’s conversations with each other are the way children learn to have conversations with themselves, and learn how to be alone. Calling learning to be alone the “bedrock of early development”, the point is made that kids shouldn’t miss out on that because they are being “pacified” with a device. Furthermore, children who do not learn real interactions which have flaws, will come to know a world where perfect screens give them a “false sense of intimacy without risk”.
Wow! That sounds pretty threatening. Actually, I think many parents can identify with the situation related in this anecdote – both the solution arrived at and the worry that went with it. But perhaps there are more aspects to it in the real world of parents and children than are addressed here. To begin with, the question is what expectations of children do we have, depending on their age and developmental stage? Is it realistic to expect either a four year old, or even a seven year old, to sit quietly by while adults have a conversation that does not include them, or is not meant for their participation?
Going out for a family dinner that includes the children is one thing. Perhaps the answer there is to go to a family restaurant where the concern about disturbing other diners would not be so great. That might be the time to interact with the children by engaging them in conversation, especially on topics of interest to them. This would apply to family dinners at home, as well.
If the author of the anecdote and his sister rarely have a chance for conversation, perhaps it would be best not to bring the children along. However, if that was not an option, it would seem the mom acted wisely in bringing along something with which the children could occupy themselves. Most parents do bring along a game, or quiet activity of some kind for long car rides or waits in restaurants. These days such things tend to be technological devices.
The problem may lie in the fact that it is so easy to fall back on the use of these devices routinely that children expect to carry them around at all times, and never expect to interact with those around them. Parents, too, may find themselves depending on such “helpers”, which can often make life’s many pressures these days easier to deal with.
There are many times and ways to keep children engaged with us and others. There are also times when the adult needs of parents should be considered. This, too, is an important part of children’s development.