Walking The iPad Line
“Come home and bring your son as well,” my friend invited. “We can hang out, and our kids can be entertained by my son’s nanny — the TV!”
My friend is funny, so I laughed. But I realized she was serious when I actually visited her and saw that her son needed the TV on in order to be coaxed into drinking water.
On my return home, I promptly disconnected the cord on the TV, put away the iPad and promised myself that I would not use my phone in front of my son, who was an infant at the time. I steeled myself to lead an austere life without any form of media entertainment.
It didn’t last for long, at least not with the phone. We did well enough with the television for a while, but a couple of years later, it is a whole different situation. My son is now in the throes of the Terrible 2s, and my home is a battlefield on all fronts — brushing, bathing, eating, even playtime. Everything becomes a fight. Out of sheer desperation, I brought out the iPad again, telling myself that it would be the one time.
Weeks later — despite the strictures of researchers and experts whose books and articles on screen time for kids I read and deeply absorbed during my pregnancy — I don’t even try to convince myself otherwise. Forget being a nanny, the iPad is my best friend. It has helped me through some tough times, like when I took my son for this first major haircut, to which he adamantly and violently refused to submit. Many times, watching a few rhymes on YouTube helps to wind him down at night before bed. And, in what is an absurd barter in the face of vociferous demands, the iPad is often offered in lieu of other seemingly worse vices like ice cream and biscuits.
For now, I control my son’s screen time and media consumption even as I enable it. I only show him nursery rhymes, Disney songs and his own baby videos. I limit how long he can watch anything, because without that I know he will not move away. Even though, my son is happy to drink a glass of water without the TV playing, and even though he listens to me when I tell him that it is his last song for the evening, there is a lurking feeling that it is not all “Hakuna Matata” (my son’s current favourite song).
It is unsettling to see the the rapt attention the screen commands from children young enough to barely have an attention span.They watch intently even though they don’t understand what they see. A preternatural calm sets in and there is uncharacteristic compliance. It is like nothing else in our daily life, a bit like sorcery. There may be a price – cognitive, emotional – to all of this screen time for kids, but unlike with ice creams and biscuits, it is not clear how or when it will be paid.
My own experience, though, tells me it won’t be much. I grew up watching copious amounts of television to no visible detriment to my mind. I appreciate the wonders of multimedia much more than I fear the ills of it. Even as a source of entertainment only, there is much value to be found.
Which is why I don’t believe in banning my child from devices. It seems to me the ‘evils’ of screen time for kids aren’t a problem of the device, as much as a problem of excess. And I don’t buy the idea of prohibition as a way to curb the possibility of excess.
As with anything, be it chocolates, chips, cookies, cakes, maggi, Chota Bheem, bad language, porn, drugs — all the things we want to protect our children from — it doesn’t help to pretend they don’t exist. It also doesn’t help to pretend that these are not desirable and pleasurable: Maggi is my husband’s and my Friday night dinner; Chips Ahoy cookies are my weakness; and, for all its misogyny, gratuitous violence and sex, I am hooked on Game of Thrones.
These things are in the world, and beyond a certain age, we can’t control or predict when and where our kids will access them. Until that age, though, I will have to do more. I will have to stop counting on my iPad as a quick fix to the problems of toddlerhood and be more purposefully in my use of it. I will need to find better things to show my son, things that will engage him more actively. I will have to set clearer limits on him and on myself (it is after all very tempting to plonk him in front of a screen for just a minute longer…).
No doubt it will be hard on both of us in the beginning, but by sharing and watching with him what I liked and enjoyed, we could find a way to make it a bonding time for both of us. We could also find a way to use the iPad for more than videos. There is so much more to see and experience; technology and content are constantly evolving.
“Amma, Jolly Holiday paakanum!” pleads my son, as I tinker with the parental controls on my iPad. Tempted to relive my own childhood when I binged on Mary Poppins, watching the movie again and again, every day, for months, I give in and pull up the video on YouTube.
The lyrics come back to me like it was yesterday. My son smiles shyly as he tries to sing the words with me. He then gets down and does a little tap dance. “Penguin dance!” he proclaims proudly, announcing the finale of the song.
The iPad may not be my saviour anymore, but it is certainly not a specter to be tamed either.