This post is in response to an article published by Focus on the Family Singapore published two days ago titled “Spare the iPhone, Socialise the Child” written by 22-year-old Economics undergraduate Abraham Ponniah. Dads for Life even said it was a “nice article”.
I cannot disagree more with that opinion.
To begin with, Mr Ponniah’s article, lightly peppered with disclaimers of “not definitive” research and a generous dash of personal experience, sets the tone with a portion that immediately did not sit well with me:
“To get the maximal benefit out of these devices without incurring any of the negatives is a matter of balancing how much children are exposed to such devices. I believe that it is better to err on the safe side.”
Mr Ponniah, the Blogfather would like to have a word with you.
1. Are We Even Talking About iPhones Anymore?
As much as I feel for Mr Ponniah’s family (I used to travel a lot in my previous job after my son was born), his personal account of having to communicate with her sister overseas via Skype, Whatsapp and FaceTime is, unfortunately, oversimplifying his own point on two counts.
Count 1: The January 2012 Stanford study which was quoted in the CNN article (and subsequently in Mr Ponniah’s) hinged on a survey conducted through Discovery Girls magazine, involving 3,461 girls aged between 8 and 12, and covered a wide range of activities, including “watching video (television, YouTube, movies,) listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to Facebook or MySpace, texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting“.
I see a few problems with this survey being used in context to Mr Ponniah’s views:
- The survey isn’t just talking about mobile devices here, but about daily tween girls’ activities that may hinder social interaction. That being said, being so focused on such a set of activities already sets this survey up towards a predetermined result.
- Parents’ concerns about their child’s mobile device usage start at 2 1/2 years old, very much earlier than the 8-12 year demographic covered in the survey. I should know, my kid has had his own iPad 1 for a little over a year (he turns 4 in December).
- Contrary to the researcher’s opinion, the survey results cannot easily be applied to boys as well. A much larger, more well-defined statistical analysis of social networking sites show that females, being as community-driven as they are, dominate the social networks. The Telegraph also has an article published in June about how “women are more attracted to social networking websites“, while guys are more inclined towards online entertainment, gaming, gambling and music. The psyches between the two genders are almost completely different in this respect. So it goes without saying, when you put the two contradicting surveys together, you are going to get “not definitive”.
Count 2:?Circumstantially, Mr Ponniah’s family doesn’t have much choice but to communicate with his sister online, but the rest of us — who have all our family at home — do. It’s a fallacy to educate families about technology control when the circumstances are so vastly different; Mr Ponniah’s experience simply cannot apply to the audience at large served by the Focus on the Family blog; he doesn’t have enough information about the rest of us to be convincing.
Social Interaction Is Engagement
Mr Ponniah believes that “one of the main reasons (smart devices are increasingly being used in children’s education) is (their) ability to grab and hold the attention of a child”. What he fails to understand is what parents and schools know: that modern technology is an unavoidable part of our children’s future, and education in the technology is as important as the education in the content the technology holds.
There is no refuting that one-on-one social interaction is paramount to a child’s social development. All this blog does is talk about how parents need to spend much more time with their kids than they already are. But parents — dads in particular — are the best-equipped to deal with both engaging their children with technology as well as personally engaging them as parents. So why make it sound like it has to be a choice?
Children cannot afford to fear technology. Neither can parents afford the resentment that develops when they restrict their child’s use of technology. Of course, rules need to be set in order to balance the scale, but not, as Mr Ponniah puts it, “balancing how much children are exposed to such devices”. We don’t want to fight with the devices, Mr Ponniah, we want to work with it.
Forcing the Devices Off Anyone is Terrible Instruction
I will be honest, as per Mr Ponniah’s request; technology, whether mobile, office, home, entertainment or otherwise, plays an integral role in all our lives, every waking minute of every day. But his final point makes technology sound like the Hunchback of Notre Dame; unwanted and misunderstood. The problem, as he succinctly explains, is that “(w)hile things relating to our work and our recreation are undoubtedly important, nurturing children should be of at least equal importance.”
The solution isn’t abject removal of any device from your child’s hands, and replacing it with another object of the child’s (suddenly diminished) desire; that’s such an authoritative move (and in the child’s eyes, a rather rude one, too). Technology is by no means a replacement for parenting, but parents can leverage on children’s attraction to technology to help with their parenting. Parents just need to recognise this, and this is where the parents, not the children, need education.
The Blogfather Recommends
Parenting is a full-time job. So are actual full-time jobs. If you wouldn’t give a second thought to using technology for work, why give a second thought to using technology for parenting? Granted, the learning curve to striking a balance between parent-to-child social interaction and technology is steep, but it likely isn’t going to be any harder than your on-job training during your work probation. We just have to remember, we run the technology, not the other way round.
That being said, it is essential that parents experienced in the art of online social communication (that’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it?) educate their kids in one very vital fact: words cannot replace direct, face-to-face communication. Emotions through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice are lost through text messaging and wonky videoconferencing feeds (even I learnt this the hard way, over years of instant messaging dependency).
That’s why, mums and dads, if you’re thinking of trying out what is suggested here, you must ensure you place yourself as the first and main point of direct contact as much as you can when guiding your child through using technology. Your presence is immediately and much more felt to your child than a back-lit screen that, despite modern advancements, still can’t emote very well.
To Mr Ponniah: erring on the side of safety is still erring. I have learned much more about parenting whilst erring on the side of technology than I would if I decided that my son shouldn’t play with an iPad. The difference in my tact and your opinion is that my wife and I are sitting right next to my son teaching him how to use that iPad than just leaving him to his own devices.
When it comes to the debate over technology versus parenting, we can take both sides. We don’t need to choose.
Image via Social Firefly; apparently they agree with me too.