Why TV Could Be Better for Kids Than iPads

Becky Worley
Special Contributor, Yahoo! Tech
Upgrade Your Life

I have a confession: I’m a tech reporter, with a master’s degree in educational technology – and I don’t often let my kids use an iPad. I’d rather let them watch TV than play with digital devices.

I’m not going to tell you how you should raise your kids – that’s up to you – but I will offer one perspective you may not have heard.

Early Successes… and Early Battles

I have twins – a boy and a girl. When they were toddlers, I searched the iTunes and Google Play stores using the keywords “educational” and “toddler.” Thousands of apps appeared. Virtual jigsaw puzzles for "spatial awareness," letter recognition, games promising “help your child learn to read!” and number of games that “teach your child to count to 100.” I downloaded many because, like most parents, I have moments when I wanted my children to be calm and still – like after dinner in a restaurant, on a plane, or when I just needed to take a shower in peace and quiet.

Boy did the apps work! The kids were quiet, zombies really.They could play games for an hour or more without a peep. I knew that the American Academy of Pediatrics said no screens before kids are two years old, but in a pinch I handed that phone to an antsy 20 month-old and got a reprieve. But the problem: it was usually just a temporary reprieve.

When it was time to get the phone back and stop playing the games, the kids went ballistic. Getting the digital device back from a child created an unholy tantrum of epic proportions, and this pattern has continued (they’re almost 6 now; and while the tantrums aren’t as bad, it’s just not pleasant to be in a constant fight about more phone time).

How Could TV Be Better?

Then I had a surprising realization: with TV shows, that negative behavior wasn’t manifesting.  Why?Because we had agreed in advance that when the show ended, the TV went off. The story line wound down, and there was some sort of closure for the kids. They might ask for another episode, but the plea was half-hearted, knowing full well that Mom probably wasn’t going to go for it.

When a phone game is taken away, even if we’ve agreed upon a time limit in advance, the kids always feel wronged, like they just aren’t done or aren’t satisfied. Game designers have baked this obsessive craving into the product: Mobile games are recursive, never-ending, and – like every good fix – they always leave you wanting more. They are intentionally addictive.

[Related: Born Digital: How The Class of 2017 Will Transform College]

Avoiding Addictions

I love casual gaming, but there have been times in my life when it hasn’t been very casual. As a kid, I had a paper route during the week just so I could go play Galaga, Pac-man, and Centipede at the arcade on the weekend; I played Tetris on my Mac in college until I literally dreamed of rotating blocks; and I played Plants Vs. Zombies until I got carpal tunnel syndrome. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite, but after 30 years as a “casual gamer,” I’ve learned to treat gaming the same way I treat tequila – with small doses and full awareness that bingeing makes you feel horrible afterwards. 

Parenting Lessons Learned

I don’t expect my kids to understand addictions or have the self-control to regulate their gaming. But I also know that not one of my best childhood memories revolves around gaming. Gaming was a solitary way to kill time, and after long hours of playing, I often felt irritated, edgy, and dissociated – like I’d walked out of a double-feature at the movie theater and it was two days later. 

So maybe I’m a hypocrite, but I want my kids to have great memories: tag, board games, reading, playing dress-up, putting on plays, making forts, learning an instrument, building Legos.

And as a parent, I’ve had a much easier time creating a balanced digital diet by using TV and my computer rather than the iPad or an Android device. If the kids want to zone out, a little passive TV is great. If they want to use technology as a tool, that’s no problem; they can use the computer to find patterns to make Fuze beads, learn why zebras have stripes, watch orca videos on YouTube, or write a letter. 

And as far as denying them exposure to technology, I don’t buy that argument. They will have plenty of exposure to technology in school, at friends’ houses, and we will feather in more technology as it’s more age appropriate. Unless your kid is playing “Suzie Learns to Code in C++” her mobile gaming experience is mainly just teaching her to swipe, tap, and pinch. I have no fear of a technology void hurting them. There is no technology void these days.

Using Moderation

I’m not implying that all games are drivel. 

There have been studies showing modest learning from language apps from PBS,

 and attempts to make apps with valuable subject matter are to be applauded. But every educator knows that learning happens with association: connecting the dots, drawing inferences, seeing parallels, and hearing what others think. My personal experience is that much of the learning in apps is dissociated, just like that feeling I described earlier that you get after binge gaming: you are in a void, and then you come back to the real world, which is wholly different. 

I sometimes still love the convenience of handing a kid a phone for a few minutes. On special occasions (when Mom really needs a distraction to keep the kids busy and doesn’t have a TV around), I let them play Tozzle or Counting Catepillars As they get more into music, I’m excited to dig into Garage Band with them. I’ll keep trying as new collaborative games come out, like Toca Boca’s Tea Party where the iPad is just a medium for collaborative imagination play. But for my kids over the last five years, educational apps didn’t do it for me, and I don’t have any regrets about keeping apps out of our daily lives. 

Recent articles and news that have shaped my thinking:

Children’sAdvocacy Group Faults Learning Apps for Babies (Source: NYT)

TheTouch Screen Generation (Source: the Atlantic)

All happy families are not alike, and I don’t pretend that what works for my kids and me will work for you and yours. So please share your strategies around kids and technology on our Facebook page.