Can Apps Teach Our Children How to Be Happy?

Bored student looks at tablet while sitting at desk in classroomThere is an ongoing debate among grown-ups of the world as to whether allowing young children to use tablets, smartphones, and other forms of modern technology is bad for them. There are great arguments on both sides, ranging from the neurological to the cultural to the ophthalmological. (NBC once interviewed me as a family therapist to weigh in on the issue. They also interviewed an eye doctor who discussed the effects on children’s eyes.)

Proponents point to the benefits provided by the multitude of educational children’s apps available. Learning colors, shapes, and numbers has never been so fun and interactive! There are apps for every age level, starting from the youngest of the young (the bottom limit being only the ability to control where your hand goes, which is beyond the ken of many otherwise brainy 1-month-olds). Language development, spatial skills, math—all kinds of topics can be and are covered by apps to the educational boon of today’s youth.

The educational opportunity these devices provide is not the whole story, however. For one thing, opponents counter that children have been learning to count for millennia without apps. But more than that, they worry that a constant focus on technology can mess with the brain’s wiring and create children who are unable to succeed IRL (for you pre-millennials out there, that means “in real life”).

The “for” crowds come back with the point that, in a world that is only going to become more technological, perhaps those are the kinds of brains we want around. The “against” crowd says we are actually in danger of losing our brains to technology, much the same way the advent of the calculator is argued to have reduced the level of competence at basic arithmetic in the general population.

It’s a lively argument.

My feeling about the whole thing is that we’re arguing about the wrong question. Do kids learn math better and faster with these apps? I don’t know. Will children who don’t have access to this kind of technology be less adept at using it when they grow up? I couldn’t say.

Maybe getting acquainted with an iPad at age 2 will improve your kids’ chances at getting into Harvard and maybe it won’t. But it certainly won’t help them develop self-esteem, self-efficacy, humility, compassion, or empathy—the kinds of qualities it takes to be happy.

But I can tell you that these questions are probably less relevant than ones like “How do I help my kids live a meaningful life?” and “How do we achieve happiness?” Anyone you ask will likely tell you they’d rather be happy than rich. Maybe getting acquainted with an iPad at age 2 will improve your kids’ chances at getting into Harvard and maybe it won’t. But it certainly won’t help them develop self-esteem, self-efficacy, humility, compassion, or empathy—the kinds of qualities it takes to be happy.

Happiness comes primarily from our relationships with ourselves and our relationships with others (in that order). In my experience, people who consider themselves happy tend to be the ones who have a healthy self-image, a solid friendship or two, meaningful passions, low stress, a sense of purpose. They are not necessarily the ones who went to Harvard, make the most money, or won the Nobel prize in chemistry.

Achievements are important, but not as an end in themselves—which means teaching children to achieve and acquire practical competence from a very young age is the wrong approach. What a 3-year-old needs more than learning how to read books is learning how to read faces. What they need more than knowing how to recognize a circle is knowing how to recognize someone else’s feelings. These are the capacities that lead to happiness and fulfillment, not the ones you get a grade on in high school.

So do tablets, smartphones, and other devices make our children smarter? I don’t know. I think a better question is this: Do they make our children happier? I have my own answer to that one. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, Topic Expert

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  • Beth

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:02 AM

    I know that this is just the way things are today, but wow, wouldn’t it be nice of our children knew the kindness of gentle human words the way that most of us always have?
    I think that the more technology grows and things become automated then you sort of lose a part of us that makes the world so great and giving.

  • Cecil

    October 17th, 2016 at 5:55 PM

    There’s an app for everything else so why not?

  • jonathan

    October 18th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    The real question should not be can an app do this because like Cecil said there is an app for most everything so I am sure that this could be made possible.
    The question for me though is why are we having to rely on something inanimate to do for us what we as humans should be far more in touch with doing for one another. There is a point when you can take things a little too far and I would say that this would be an area where I would definitely think that this has happened.

  • Kimm

    October 19th, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    I want to decrease their screen time, not encourage more of it.

  • Sunnie

    October 19th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    I don’t think that I am naive but it seems like it is not something that can be taught, being happy.
    I mean, for me it feels like you either are happy or you are not, and there isn’t much that you can do to change that disposition.
    I just think that some people are naturally inclined to have more happiness or unhappiness in their lives. I think that improvements can always be made but this could be a part of a personality that is not all that malleable in the end.

  • Reese

    October 20th, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    I am all for trying new things and different methods for doing things. I think that all of this boils down to you have to first find what appeals to you and makes you happy. This may be one on one interaction with another person or it could be happiness that you derive by using an app on your phone. Honestly it doesn’t make any difference to me what you find as long as you find that happiness.

  • Raffi Bilek

    October 21st, 2016 at 5:00 AM

    What I am suggesting here is that long-term happiness is not going to be achieved via an app. There’s no question that there are apps that are fun, engaging, educational, etc. But human beings do not derive lifelong fulfillment from them, and I don’t think they’re a good basis for trying to achieve it.

  • Lois

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    This is the direction in which the world is heading so why even try to fight it anymore?

  • Raffi Bilek

    October 21st, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    I don’t know about fighting the world. I just know that I don’t spend my time looking for the best educational apps for my kids. It’s up to you to make your own decision about your own kids.

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