My Son Wants an iPad …

The optimistic opener: my son, almost 6, wants to be a vet when he grows up.

The downturn at the end: his “one wish” is for an iPad on the weeks that he spends with me. (The backstory: it’s his birthday in a couple weeks and he gets to create a “celebration of life” poster to tell his classmates about his life.)

In this world chock full of stimulating electronic media, he’s had plenty of opportunity to notice their magnetic allure, and to get hooked into the attention economy before he even has a fully developed brain.

The attention economy is an economic system that treats attention – in this case, eyeballs looking at screens – as a scarce commodity, and the intense competition is for your finite attention.

There are societal precedents for how to moderate this sort of thing; we no longer allow Big Tobacco to market to children, because marketing an addictive substance to children that don’t have the mental faculties to discern marketing from reality (and to hook children on a harmful choice) strikes us, collectively, as unethical.

I think that there’s a compelling case to be made for some legislation to protect children (or anyone else who is clearly vulnerable to manipulation) from targeting by companies using the highly stimulating, addictive properties of screens to set the hooks of media in deep, but I have no idea how to legislate that.

As a society, we let the availability of technology get ahead of our thinking about technology, and now it’s virtually impossible to put the cat back in the bag.

That all being said, I understand my son’s plea for direct access to video streaming and online games. He has regular access to that sort of addictive brain candy elsewhere, and, look, we all have experienced the powerful pull of electronic media.

So part of my challenge as a parent is teaching my son how to self-regulate around addictive opportunities, whether it’s sugary snacks or hyper-stimulating media. If only the rest of us had it all sorted out, too.

The world is full of addictive options, and part of our Work is learning how to self-regulate our emotions and our choices with relative ease. (And no, my boy is not getting an iPad.)

How do you handle this with your children?

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13 Comments

  • jean

    We sent our daughter to what we call the tree-hugging preschool, a Waldorf School with farm animals a garden, plenty of lavender water to wash their hands when they came in from the Big World, a round pink rug to hear stories on, and have Puppet Time. There were dolls made from shrunken wool, rocks and sticks to build houses out of, silk scarves to run with and dress-up with. No computers no electronics. Then we sent her to Catholic schools where they consider the whole person heart Body spirit. By the way she was born in 2002 oh, so she’s 16 now , so you know the time frame. In 5th grade the school board voted to bring in laptops for each student, so they could utilize Khan Academy. Allegedly so their children would not have to carry big textbooks back and forth for every class, to help protect their backs from heavy backpacks. That began the beginning of the end. Now it’s 16, she’s often using her phone and her laptop and a digital calculator all at once. While she had that beautiful Blissful early time, of watching only PBS and Lawrence Welk for the beautiful singing and dancing, her choice by the way! It’s impossible for her to get through the school system without all the electronics. As a parent, we waited until 8th grade to get her a cell phone, realizing that she should be able to discern what adults can help her, and she should not be wandering alone. Today she prefers books to everything, but still has to come home and generally spend 6 to 8 hours on a computer. When we have time, we walk, or bike or skate or even hot tub or clean house. I sometimes insist that she comes out and it’s in the living room with us even when she’s doing her homework. And she is in her 14th year of ballet classes. Bottom line is the teachers love her because she can interact with people. She has a sense of presence and poise that they can count on. When she had, for brief times, a tablet she generally was Swept Away by the novelty of it, and could not self-regulate to put it aside. After about 10 times of it spending the night on refrigerator. She eventually forgot to ask for it. I don’t know if not having electronics for all those years made it more novel for her, or it helped her to know there is more to life than that. I vote the latter. But it definitely has to be a balance of activity and rest.She still carries books everywhere, and finds rejuvenation in dance. Good luck.

  • Giuletta Garland

    Thank you for being one of the voices for saying “no” to screens for young children.
    Asa teacher in a Waldorf inspired charter school (tech free for the first few years of school and then limited tech when they have to take state-mandated tests), I can see the very real difference between those children with free access to electronic media and those whose parents have chose to limit or eliminate their use in the home.

  • Jean

    Btw, you also have to realize what you model for him, in terms of your own time on a electronic screen.

  • Lisa Gonzalez

    One thing to understand that this is the way they will work and communicate in the future. Now, I’m not saying give them an iPad as a babysitter, but electronics can be used for learning like programming. There are tons of cool free gamified resources for teaching kids the foundations for the jobs that will be available in the future.

    I think the key is to teach them balance, because I do believe that a lot of the anxiety kids are experiencing is from so much time in front of a screen that they don’t get the endorphins from exercise and things like fresh air. It’s a conundrum for sure…

  • Glenna Turney

    It’s tough with “everyone else has one”.
    We never purchase handheld type devices for our 5 children.
    We did have an Xbox and they were allowed 30minutes a day.
    Being outside and doing other things was encouraged.
    Traveling, they used a map to decide the direction in which we were going. Family participation games too including in car.
    As they got older we purchase a flip phone and it was the kids phone. They were only allowed to have when they were gone on day trips. They never all seemed to be gone at once.
    We were not the norm and our children survived.
    You are doing the right thing for you son.

  • Keshia Bender

    I went completely without a cell phone for a year and a half, just a landline. I have a three year old who is very, very limited on her screen time. Movies is it. Two weeks ago I decided I was healthy enough to have a phone in my life. In just those two weeks, she has been “playing phone” with a calculator, “wishing” for a phone, and even snuck mine into her backpack.

    This is a really wide brush, but I am finding modeling a low attachment to my phone is the best defense I have (at the toddler age) to keeping her interest off of it and on better things.

    Culture as a whole can’t regulate themselves with technology, I am really confused why we think kids can. I generally try not to banish things, because it just turns into the “forbidden fruit”. But in this case, I think everything that will be gained is worth a black and white mentality here.

  • Sarah

    With my 3 (ages 10,8, and 6) we don’t use any electronics at home aside from a movie or 2 on the weekends. Instead, we play sports, cook together, and spend lots of time outside. I don’t know the best way to handle this issue, but what I’ve done is simply talk with my kids, often and frequently, about why we do not use electronics extensively at home. And they already can see the effects it has on their friends and classmates -they get it. chrome books are already used at school, they don’t need it at home too, in my opinion.

  • Cindy Million

    It’s great to hear of other parents who are really thinking this through and not just automatically going along with what everyone else is doing. Our son is in 4th grade, and, unfortunately, each child was issued their own Chromebook to use in school. At our most recent parent-teacher meeting, our son’s teacher said that our son was on his Chromebook during any spare minute he had. This was really alarming to me. The teacher recommended the book “Glow Kids,” which I’ve been reading. It goes into the science that shows how addictive devices and screens are for kids. Honestly, my heart aches for all of these kids who are being weighed down and trapped by devices and screens at such a young age. In our home, we are now down to some PBS shows and hockey games on TV on the weekends, but no time on a computer, iPad, or iPhone. I’m working with my son’s teachers to switch certain activities from his Chromebook to paper/pencil, but it’s not a simple process. My son now feels singled out because he’s the only one using actual books to research the Revolutionary War instead of his Chromebook. The other day my son asked me when he’d get an iPhone, and I thought about how absurd things have gotten. I told him maybe college. I’m researching Waldorf schools as an option because I want my kids to have a real childhood and to not be burdened by a screen addiction, but it’s incredibly frustrating that the public school system can’t offer an alternative. Would love to hear how you and other parents continue to navigate things.

  • Iska

    We have started to listen to a podcast called Dear Anxiety. Mar 22 was one about social media and has some good ideas. My kids are homeschooled and I regret introducing Minecraft in grade 5. Until then, screen time was limited to cartoons on weekends. At 13, my son built his own gaming computer and now at 15, he is taking IT classes at a local high school. We recently have found an app that can turn Wi-Fi off for certain devices, so I allow them to use the laptop to get schoolwork done, but not game. This isn’t well received. Lol There are a lot of educational games, but I think that 6 is really young. They aren’t able to self regulate yet. Perhaps you can restrict the use to a few hours per day or less? It is a slippery slope and goes downhill fast. Good luck with whatever you decide.

  • Samantha

    I had three kids in two years and didn’t really give it much thought at that time (12 years ago), so my oldest had an ipad when she was a toddler. I’m not sure how I would have survived twin babies and a toddler without it. It saved me many times when I needed to entertain that toddler. But once I started to really think about it, I got rid of it. think you’ve made the right choice to not get your son one. For so many reasons.

    First, there is no reason for it. Because they want it? Telling kids no sometimes – especially when the thing they want is expensive and potentially harmful – is good parenting. Because they need to learn control? As they grow they will have plenty of time to have electronic devices and plenty of time to work on control. Schools are using ipads in kindergarten, giving kids laptops they take him as early as sixth grade. They have electronics elsewhere. Because they’ll feel left out? A little social discomfort when they don’t know about the latest app isn’t going to harm them- it will more likely help them learn to adapt in social situations and understand that not everyone has the same life experience. And they will get sufficient exposure at friends’ homes to be able to speak the language. Because they’ll be less bored? Boredom is never something we should avoid.

    Second, the harms are not justifiable. And it’s not just the obvious harms – eye and brain health, tracking, marketing, bullying, grooming, etc., etc. – which we are all aware of. It is also affecting their attention span and mental stamina. Games are made specifically to keep you online via constant stimulation and other apps and online experiences (ie YouTube) have “gamification” embedded in them. In turn this is changing movies and literature – the movies geared toward kids and families, the books written for older kids and teens, have in large part become so fast-paced and stimulating that young people’s stamina for things like reading, downtime, boredom, etc. is decreasing. For example, my oldest is old enough to start reading classic literature, and she is a huge reader (thousands of pages a week huge). She spends very little time online or playing games. Yet when she starts a classic book, she finds herself unable to find the patience needed to get through it. Her brain has adapted to the constant stimulation provided by our gamified world. And her school’s solution? Interactive computer programs in the classroom! Schools are so gung-ho for technology that they aren’t stopping to consider the negative effects.

    So we parents have two main jobs here, as I see it: First, make sure that the majority of their time is spent without a screen. And because they are exposed at friends’, school, etc., that really means no ipad or game system at home. Second, we have to be very frank about the risks and purpose of games, social media, etc. We all know the risks: predation, bullying, physical harm, the fact that what we say or do online never actually goes away, etc. It’s also important to pull the curtain back on the purpose. Even young kids can understand the idea that companies are not helping us – they are trying to separate us from our money. They can understand that ads on tv or online are trying to sell us things. And once they can understand that, they can understand to some extent that the purpose of games and apps is to commodify us and sell us stuff. They can – and need to – understand that in addition to the obvious potential harms, companies are tracking their every move in order to sell them stuff and/or sell that information to other companies who try to sell them stuff.

    We recently got our kids phones – middle school, parents living apart, lots of after school activities, etc. I shut down all functions except for music, phone, camera, and messaging. No app store, no games, no internet, no connecting the camera to any app other than messages. No deleting apps. This is easy on an iphone. And we had them all sign detailed contracts setting out the risks, rules, and expectations. The upsides: they can contact us and each other and their friends (who are an increasingly -important part of their lives as they grow). They have them in case of emergency (though we still tlk frequently about how to ask for help). The contract has worked great in that it avoids arguments over restrictions in general and changes resulting from breaking the rules. And so far, they have not waded into anything too negative – they know the phone and plan is ours, and we have the right to look at the phones at any time, on demand. They know there is no privacy on the internet. If they want to keep things private, they are welcome to use their journals. The downsides – car trips are silent because they’re listening to music. I have to make them put the phones away so we can talk or listen to an audiobook. My older one has to be constantly told she needs to put it away. They are constantly misplacing them, so every evening when it’s plug-in time (downstairs, never in bedrooms) it’s a scramble to find them. And we are always worried about tracking, gamificaiton, and their attention spans.

  • Jamie Fellrath

    Our rule in the house is no devices upstairs without parent approval (privacy during homework, etc.). It’s worked well to keep the kids away from the constant pinging of social media and texts from friends overnight.

    Our son is on the autism spectrum – that makes a special problem for us. He has an iPad, and although he doesn’t NEED it for speech or anything like that, for him it’s a comfort thing where he can zone out from all the overstimulation from the rest of the world. He’s also on a swim team, and doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem putting it down when he’s tired of it and that’s not TOO rare an occurrence.

    Our daughter is in 6th grade, and because her school is so tech-dependent (using Google Classroom regularly, along with other online resources) we pretty much had to get her a Chromebook if we didn’t want her falling behind. Her problem is that she loves to play online games like Roblox and she frequently distracts herself from necessary things. On the other hand, she just got a new phone and doesn’t really use it much (the day we got it for her, she left it in the car twice as we ran errands, and not by accident). She’s also a voracious reader and I think she’d rather read a book than play on the Chromebook.

    The best we’ve been able to do with that is to simply be the good example. I try not to use my tech for anything other than functional stuff, and when I do I let the kids see that – pulling the phone out to check my tasks for the day, look stuff up in Evernote, take pictures, etc. It’s worked well to see the phone as a tool and not as the entertainment center.

  • Anna Jordan

    Ugh! I have two girls, 6 and 8, and they are already asking when they can get a cell phone because so many kids in their classes already have them. It amazes me that parents would get such a young child a smart phone. There are also several kids who ride their bus who bring their iPads/tablets along so they can play on them on the (short) bus ride. It really is scary to think that we’re just enabling our kids to be constantly entertained and stimulated – with no time for boredom and hence no time to really develop curiosity and creativity. Thanks for spreading awareness of this problem…

  • Lynn Johnson

    Hi there. I’ve read the replies on here and it seems as if the majority of the responses are from parents of younger children. Here’s my story. Single mom my child is now 21. She was raised on computers, cell phones, laptops etc. as early as grade school she had assignments online. She is now graduating from JMU and has made Presidents list the last several semesters. She is bright,well adjusted, well mannered and very very smart. She works part time and works out on a regular basis. It really comes down to what you will and won’t accept as a parent. Good luck as you journey through fatherhood.

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