The topic of kids and technology is a hot topic again. This would normally be a good thing, if the questions that are being discussed weren’t fundamentally the wrong ones. It is, however, a familiar situation. We are going through a normalization of a new technology, and it will be met in the same way that technology has been met before: with skepticism, doubt and the occasional hint of technophobia. Discussions like these cloud the interesting part—the choices that parents make for their kids. But let’s start with at least getting the terminology right.
Firstly, we need to stop talking about the notion of screen time. All screens are not equal. A TV is different from a computer, and they are both different from a touchscreen tablet. Putting all of them in the same category is dishonest and simplistic. Screens are merely a way of visualizing experiences of a wide variety of categories. They are bearers of media—they are not media in themselves. Thus, they cannot categorically be defined as good, bad or neutral. For instance, no reasonable person would say that all computers are bad in the workplace. There may be good or bad uses of a computer, but the computer itself is neither. It’s just there—as an instrument, or a bearer of media.
Secondly, there is a big difference between watching something and interacting with it. The interactive component changes everything when it comes to creating new experiences for kids. Being engaged and actively participating in something—with feedback, collaboration, imagination and creativity—is a completely different experience from viewing a passive narrative. There can be a time and a place for both, but they are by no means the same thing.
Thirdly, it is no longer a matter of “if” you should use technology for learning but rather “how” it can be done. This is the foundation on which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center rests too. I am not saying that the iPad is the solution to everything—not at all—I am suggesting that we should not be thinking about iPads that way from the beginning. Think about what your kids need to learn and grow. Play with them, talk to them, observe them. What do they need to develop? Start there. Then—once you know that—you can start thinking about ways to do this. Perhaps all your kids really need is to develop a certain skill a little more, or perhaps to dive deeper into an interest that they have. If that is the case, then that is what they should do. But there are areas where technology can help too. Then—and only then—should you start thinking about how an iPad can be used. It isn’t alchemy for education—it is a merely a tool with which you can do great things. The iPad is not interesting. What you choose to do with it is.
Finally, technology is not a replacement for anything else. It isn’t intended to be, and shouldn’t be treated that way either. But here’s the thing—it is the parents who draw that line. You choose what apps your kids can play with, and the occasions where you think it is appropriate to do so. It is only a replacement if you as parents treat it as one. You choose and steer how kids develop by your own participation. It is a tool for you to use, but the tool does not dictate the rules. Just as little as a leather football dictates how long you should play a game of football. You make the decisions based on how you want your kids to grow. An iPad is in no way a threat to that decision.
The iPad is not a babysitter, some say. Well—it’s not if you don’t treat it as one. The iPad in itself is nothing more than a tool that can be used for many different things. You as parents decide which ones.
Björn Jeffery is the CEO and Co-Founder of Toca Boca, a play studio that makes digital toys for touchscreen devices. Since 2011, it has released 17 digital toy apps that are played in more than 150 countries. The apps carry consistently high ratings on the App Store and have totaled more than 32 million downloads to date. Toca Boca is a part of The Bonnier Group, one of Europe’s largest media groups with interests in books, newspapers, magazines, television, internet and film. Mr. Jeffery is currently based in San Francisco at the company’s U.S. headquarters.