There 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.
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