iPad As New Literacy

Anything that is truly new must feel unfamiliar; if it doesn’t feel unfamiliar it is not truly new.

Merlin Mann, Back to Work Podcast 259

Merlin and Dan had an interesting conversation about a problem I have been struggling with: how much time do you allow children to use an iPad?1

My daughter, Kylie, makes good use of my iPad, almost more than I do. The main app she uses is Netflix, because it allows her greater freedom to pause a show or to select a show based on her mood easily without waiting for me. The other apps she uses vary in their complexity and their goals, from simple apps that allow her to mix a smoothie with ingredients she chooses, to exploring the world of Minecraft. She can easily get sucked into the iPad and focus on the activity she is doing, but she still takes breaks or stops without me asking, much to my astonishment.

Leaving aside the effects that iPad screens (and all screens, really) have on our eyes, the discussion between Dan and Merlin circled around which activities are most beneficial to our children? Merlin’s example of parents shuttling their kids to different activities immediately after school, leaves little time for kids to be kids. It is a parenting out of convenience: adults are too busy with work and feel that the activities will fill the parenting void of their absence.

I have seen that happen often at Kylie’s school, as well. It has always puzzled me why there weren’t more kids out on the playground in the spring and fall to enjoy the equipment and space as much as they possibly could. Instead, the moment kids are released from the school, they are often dragged into cars to be shuttled to the next activity on the list. Some of them do resist quite a bit, but the result is always the same: in the car they go.

The main point was that it was more important for kids to be doing activities that their friends were doing. If their friends were doing other activities than they were, they would have no shared experiences to talk about. There would be a lot of comparisons being made and likely jealousy created, especially if the activities were financially demanding for parents.

More and more kids are growing up with iPads and other tablets around them. It isn’t that these kids aren’t interested in other activities, it is that the activities on the tablets are the ones they enjoy more and the ones that all their friends are doing as well. Kylie does not need much encouragement to get out for a long walk with me, or a quick suggestion that she check on her Critters2 has the iPad be put down promptly. She has quite the active mind away from the iPad when playing with other toys or creating art. Plus she is an insatiable reader of both English and French books. I don’t see the iPad being a negative influence on her childhood.

The iPad is something she looks forward to picking up and using, like I enjoyed riding my bike or causing mischief with friends when I was around her age. I learned about life through my friends and exploring the world around us. My daughter learns that way too, but her education is being augmented by using the iPad. Much like how I don’t correct her French grammar right away, I don’t jump to help her when she encounters a problem with her games. I allow her the opportunity to try and figure it out on her own. I don’t want to deter her from her speaking French, and I want to encourage her to problem-solve on her own.

Through using the iPad, as Merlin suggests, Kylie is essentially learning a new language. How to navigate the iPad, discovering the settings for volume and screen brightness, how to organize her apps, how to edit the photos she takes, and more, are increasingly become an essential part of our lives. Allowing Kylie to be immersed in that world now, will only help her flourish in the future when other kids are just discovering those tools at a later age.

While the iPad is truly new for anyone over the age of 20, children like Kylie will treat iPads as part of their life like anything else they encounter these days. They will become normalized for them and it will likely be their generation that pushes the technology past its current limits, because they will be the ones most fluent in its language.

Listen to the full episode:

  1. I upgraded to a iPad Air 2in the fall. One of my best purchases of the year. 

  2. A quick note on Calico’s Critters: they can be expensive, but they’re priced around the same as a medium-sized Lego set. They’re less annoying with fewer small parts, and Kylie seems to get far more enjoyment out of them.