By STEVE ALMOND
Published: June 21, 2013
A few months ago, I attended my daughter Josie’s kindergarten open house, the highlight of which was a video slide show featuring our moppets using iPads to practice their penmanship. Parental cooing ensued.
I happened to be sitting next to the teacher, and I asked her about the rumor I’d heard: that next year, every elementary-school kid in town would be provided his or her own iPad. She said this pilot program was being introduced only at the newly constructed school three blocks from our house, which Josie will attend next year. “You’re lucky,” she observed wistfully.
This seemed to be the consensus around the school-bus stop. The iPads are coming! Not only were our kids going to love learning, they were also going to do so on the cutting edge of innovation. Why, in the face of this giddy chatter, was I filled with dread?
It’s not because I’m a cranky Luddite. I swear. I recognize that iPads, if introduced with a clear plan, and properly supervised, can improve learning and allow students to work at their own pace. Those are big ifs in an era of overcrowded classrooms. But my hunch is that our school will do a fine job. We live in a town filled with talented educators and concerned parents.
Frankly, I find it more disturbing that a brand-name product is being elevated to the status of mandatory school supply. I also worry that iPads might transform the classroom from a social environment into an educational subway car, each student fixated on his or her personalized educational gadget.
But beneath this fretting is a more fundamental beef: the school system, without meaning to, is subverting my parenting, in particular my fitful efforts to regulate my children’s exposure to screens. These efforts arise directly from my own tortured history as a digital pioneer, and the war still raging within me between harnessing the dazzling gifts of technology versus fighting to preserve the slower, less convenient pleasures of the analog world.
What I’m experiencing is, in essence, a generational reckoning, that queasy moment when those of us whose impatient desires drove the tech revolution must face the inheritors of this enthusiasm: our children.
It will probably come as no surprise that I’m one of those annoying people fond of boasting that I don’t own a TV. It makes me feel noble to mention this — I am feeling noble right now! — as if I’m taking a brave stand against the vulgar superficiality of the age. What I mention less frequently is the reason I don’t own a TV: because I would watch it constantly.
My brothers and I were so devoted to television as kids that we created an entire lexicon around it. The brother who turned on the TV, and thus controlled the channel being watched, was said to “emanate.” I didn’t even know what “emanate” meant. It just sounded like the right verb.
This was back in the ’70s. We were latchkey kids living on the brink of a brave new world. In a few short years, we’d hurtled from the miraculous calculator (turn it over to spell out “boobs”!) to arcades filled with strobing amusements. I was one of those guys who spent every spare quarter mastering Asteroids and Defender, who found in video games a reliable short-term cure for the loneliness and competitive anxiety that plagued me. By the time I graduated from college, the era of personal computers had dawned. I used mine to become a closet Freecell Solitaire addict.
Midway through my 20s I underwent a reformation. I began reading, then writing, literary fiction. It quickly became apparent that the quality of my work rose in direct proportion to my ability filter out distractions. I’ve spent the past two decades struggling to resist the endless pixelated enticements intended to capture and monetize every spare second of human attention.
Has this campaign succeeded? Not really. I’ve just been a bit slower on the uptake than my contemporaries. But even without a TV or smartphones, our household can feel dominated by computers, especially because I and my wife (also a writer) work at home. We stare into our screens for hours at a stretch, working and just as often distracting ourselves from work.
Our children not only pick up on this fraught dynamic; they re-enact it. We ostensibly limit Josie (age 6) and Judah (age 4) to 45 minutes of screen time per day. But they find ways to get more: hunkering down with the videos Josie takes on her camera, sweet-talking the grandparents and so on. The temptations have only multiplied as they move out into a world saturated by technology.
Consider an incident that has come to be known in my household as the Leapster Imbroglio. For those unfamiliar with the Leapster, it is a “learning game system” aimed at 4-to-9-year-olds. Josie has wanted one for more than a year. “My two best friends have a Leapster and I don’t,” she sobbed to her mother recently. “I feel like a loser!”
My wife was practically in tears as she related this episode to me. It struck me as terribly sad that an electronic device had become, in our daughter’s mind, such a powerful talisman of personal worth. But even sadder was the fact that I knew, deep down, exactly how she felt.
This is the moment we live in, the one our childhoods foretold. When I see Josie clutching her grandmother’s Kindle to play Angry Birds for the 10th straight time, or I watch my son stuporously soaking up a cartoon, I’m really seeing myself as a kid — anxious, needy for love but willing to settle for electronic distraction to soothe my nerves or hold tedium at bay.
And if experiencing this blast from the past weren’t troubling enough, I also get to confront my current failings as a parent. After all, we park the kiddos in front of SpongeBob because it’s convenient for us, not good for them. (“Quiet time,” we call it. Let’s please not dwell on how sad and perverse this phrase is.) We make this bargain every day, even though our kids are often restless and irritable afterward.
Back in the day, when my folks snapped off the TV and exhorted us to pick up a book or go outside and play, they did so with a certain cultural credibility. Everyone knew you couldn’t experience the “real world” by sitting in front of a screen. It was an escape. Today, screens are the real world, or at least the accepted means of making us feel a part of that world. And they can no longer be written off as mind-rotting piffle. “The iPad is an educational tool, Papa!” Josie declared last month, after hearing me grouse about Apple’s efforts to target the preschool demographic.
Her own experience learning to read is a case in point. We spent a year coaxing her to try beginner books. Even with the promise of our company and encouragement, it was a tough sell. Then her teacher sent home a note about a Web site that allows kids to listen to stories, with some rudimentary animation, before reading them and taking a quiz to earn points. She has since plowed through more than 50 books.
Josie never fails to remind me that “the reading” is her least favorite part of this activity. And when she does, I feel (once again) that I’m face to face with myself as a kid: more interested in racking up points than embracing the joys of reading. What I’m lamenting isn’t that she prefers to read off a screen but that the screen alters and dilutes the imaginative experience.
It is unfair, not to mention foolish, for me to expect my 6-year-old to seek redemption in the same way I did, only at age 25. Her job is to make the same sometimes-impulsive decisions I made as a kid (and teenager and young adult). And my job is to let her learn her own lessons rather than imposing mine on her.
Still, I can’t be the only parent feeling whiplashed by the pace of technological changes, the manner in which every conceivable wonder — not just the diversions but also the curriculums and cures, the assembled beauty and wisdom of the ages — has migrated inside our portable machines. Is it really possible to hand kids these magical devices without somehow dimming their sense of wonder at the world beyond the screen?
In the course of mulling this question, I stumbled across an odd trove of videos (on YouTube, naturally) in which parents proudly record their babies operating iPads. One girl is 9 months old. Her ability to manipulate the touch screen is astonishing. But the clip is profoundly eerie. The child’s face glows like an alien as she scrolls from app to app. It’s like watching some bizarre inverse of Skinner’s box, in which the child subject is overrun by choices and stimuli. She seems agitated in the same way my kids are after “quiet time” — excited without being engaged.
As I watched her in action, I found myself wondering how a malleable brain like hers might be shaped by this odd experience of being the lord of a tiny two-dimensional universe. And whether a child exposed to such an experience routinely might later struggle to contend with the necessary frustrations and mysteries of the actual world.
I realize the human brain is a supple organ. My daughter may learn to use technology in ways I never have: to focus her attention, to stimulate her imagination, to expand her sense of possibility. And I know too that most folks view their devices as relatively harmless paths to greater efficiency and connectivity.
But I remain skeptical.
Because aren’t we just kidding ourselves? When we whip out our smartphones in line at the bank, 9 times out of 10 it’s because we’re jonesing for a microhit of stimulation, or that feeling of power that comes with holding a tiny universe in our fist.
The reason people turn to screens hasn’t changed much over the years. They remain mirrors that reflect a species in retreat from the burdens of modern consciousness, from boredom and isolation and helplessness.
It’s natural for children to seek out a powerful tool to banish these feelings. But the only reliable antidote to such burdens, based on my own experience, is not immersion in brighter and mightier screens but the capacity to slow our minds and pay sustained attention to the world around us. This is how all of us — whether artists or scientists or kindergartners — find beauty and meaning in the unceasing rush of experience. It’s how we develop empathy for other people, and the humility to accept our failures and keep struggling. It’s what grants my daughter the patience to wait for the cardinal who has taken to visiting the compost bin on our back porch.
I imagine the iPad Josie receives at school next year will have access to a vast archive of information and videos about cardinals, ones she’ll be able to call up and peruse instantly. But no flick of the thumb will ever make her suck in her breath as she does when, after five excruciating minutes, an actual cardinal appears on the porch railing in a flash of impossible red. I hope Josie remembers that all her life. I hope we both do.