Sunday, December 22, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Can Tablets Be Our (Children's) Friends?

My husband and I got our daughter (three years old) a LeapPad 2 for Christmas. I feel a little torn about it.

On one hand, I'm a media lover. I consume media with a voracious appetite. I listen to music while I'm grading papers, listen to audio books while I'm running through the park, read Twitter feeds while I'm riding (not driving) on long car trips, and read good old-fashioned books daily. I love movies, music videos, and television, even when it's bad. I want to share my love for these things with my daughter because they are a big part of my life and our family. My husband and I have entire movies that we watch over and over again simply to make fun of them. It's like our own private, ever-changing Mystery Science Theater. We watch films and use them for springboards into long, philosophical conversations. We critique music together. Media is part of the fabric of our traditions, and I want my daughter in on them (in an age-appropriate way, of course).

At the same time, I recognize that even if I didn't love media so much, my daughter is growing up in an age where it is ubiquitous. She is growing up in a time where there are entire television networks dedicated to infants. There are Netflix options specifically for pre-literate children to navigate. Cell phones did not exist when I was a baby, but she could figure out how to swipe on my iPhone before she could walk. The times, they are a-changing. And, as I've written about before, I'm not so sure all the hand wringing about it is justified.

Still, purchasing the shiny LeapPad made me a little nervous. Was it a gateway drug to the slobbering, media-addicted zombie that so many preteens are presented as today? Was I dooming her to a disconnected existence? Was I giving in to commercial pressures? Was I destroying my kid with a hunk of expensive, blinking plastic?

Even though I don't really believe that (or else I wouldn't have bought the thing), the anxiety was fresh on my mind when I stumbled upon this petition against a Fisher Price "Apptivity" baby seat: a bouncy chair that has a built-in iPad station hovering above the infant's head. In the petition (that, as of this writing, has over 12,000 signatures), the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has this to say:
Babies need laps, not apps. Fisher-Price should focus on developing products that actually facilitate learning, development, and interaction with caregivers, instead of encouraging parents to strap down babies—even those too young to sit up—inches from a screen.
It sparked this blog post from Claudia M. Gold suggesting that such inventions actually violate infants' rights to healthy development.

I know. I know. That sounds extreme.

Indeed, a lot of people see the petition alone as going too far. Just don't buy the thing. Problem solved, right?

Even as much as I love media, even as I am okay with handing my child my iPhone to play a round of Angry Birds, even as I plan to give my child essentially an iPad-in-training for Christmas, I am creeped out to the max by the idea of strapping infants into a chair and forcing them to watch a screen.

It was with all of this bouncing around in the back of my mind that I began reading Walter Ong's The Presence of the Word as part of my PhD exam study. 

At one point, Ong begins discussing the communal nature of language, particularly during its acquisition phase:
children do not achieve thinking by themselves. They learn to think as they are introduced into the use of words which are far older than their teachers, and which belong not to them but to everybody.
See, language--by its very nature--is shared. It is only language when it can be used to communicate with others. That's the point. While it is through language development that we create a sense of individuality and internalize independent thought, that individuality is dependent upon a collective language that is not ours alone. No one can "own" language. It is everybody's. Ong goes on to explain that children have "potential of [their] own" but they cannot access that potential without "oral-aural contact with others."

In other words, interaction with other people is essential for the ability to develop language, and--in turn--that language development is essential for the ability to create a sense of self and, ultimately, to think at all.

Discussing a child's language development, Ong explains that a child "burbles and gurgles and crows and often plays with his lips at the same time" while trying to figure out how language works. But it's only through the feedback from other people that babbling becomes what we consider words:
When the child chances on a sound approximating 'mama,' for example, [parents] often become ecstatic. The child finds that from here on his world blooms in a most wonderful way. He is made over, fondled, caressed (Skinnerian psychologists, who tend to cast explanations in visual-tactile terms, would say he is 'reinforced'), and he soon learns that saying mama is a highly rewarding diversion, especially given a certain state of affairs in the world around him. 
Ong's work spends a lot of time examining the network of sensory perceptions and how they work together. For the child, there is a web of feedback stimuli involved in language development. The mother who hears "mama" may praise the child verbally, smile largely for visual reinforcement, and touch the child with hugs and kisses for kinesthetic feedback. The reinforcement is multi-faceted and intensely tied up with the human relationship, and that's how we figure out what impact certain sounds have upon the community around us. Ong notes that the nature of language development demonstrates the "radically social nature of thought itself."

We are heavily dependent upon the thoughts of people external to us for our own knowledge. The number of things that you could learn through your own sensory perceptions are limited indeed. Without trusting and building upon the knowledge of others passed down to us, we'd know nothing of history, of countries we'd never seen, of the deep sea or outer space, of how to build a lightbulb, and so on.

Research has connected infants' early brain development and this need for interaction to develop language, positing that there is a critical period between zero and three where the "neurons are best able to form connections based simply on exposure to input." Indeed, this is the justification the AAP gives for continuing to recommend that children under the age of 2 get no exposure to screens (despite the fact that both anecdotal and data-driven evidence suggest very few people are following that advice).

Perhaps this is why companies are starting to present their technological advancements not as toys, but as people. Take the Nabi, a children's tablet with the tagline "It's more than a tablet; it's a friend." 


But Nabi is not a friend. It is a toy, a tool, a machine. It may have a cute talking face, and it may provide a child some great hands-on practice for using electronic tools to create and consume information, but it cannot replace what the brain really needs to develop language: interaction with real people. And it is that interaction that leads to language, to thinking. 

Ultimately, this is why I think the petition against the "Apptivity" seat and our continued discussion of the social norms surrounding media use for children are so important. Even if you choose not to buy the iPad seat, if it becomes a popular choice, that has an immense impact on our cultural language development.

Language, after all, belongs to everybody.

Photo: mackattck, gnews pics

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post. I've got an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old and have been navigating the whole "screen time" business for quite a while. They're definitely growing up in a different world than I did! We had a half-hour per day limit until last summer, except that they were introduced to a lot of computer use at school. Sadly, our technology teacher replaced our art teacher. Now, for various reasons, it's an hour per day. Usually. (