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My favorite six-year-old and a friend were on the playground. After an hour of running around and playing, the two of them ended up sitting together on the top of a climbing toy and having a rest.
I, of course, was nearby, keeping an eye on them.
This is what a happy childhood looks like, I thought. Playing outdoors, in the sunshine, on a lovely day, with a good pal. It doesn’t get better than this.
Then Josh spoke. “I miss my iPad,” he said to Alexa.
“I miss my iPad too,” she said.
I hadn’t expected that. But it shouldn’t have surprised me.
Both six-year-olds have their own iPads, housed in sturdy plastic cases, which they watch at every opportunity. The amount of time the kids spend on their iPads varies from day to day but because they both have busy parents and several siblings, it’s inevitable that they get to enjoy plenty of content. Both of them spend many hours a week in what Josh’s dad refers to as “iPad Land.”
Their parents, of course, pay close attention to how long they can watch and what they can watch.
Tech changes, and so does life
I spent my own 1960s childhood reading. I was that kid at the playground who was always sitting in a shady spot with her nose in a book. I liked reality well enough, but I escaped at every opportunity to the world of fiction. The make-believe worlds I loved were just as real, and just as necessary for my happiness, as the world around me.
Now I’m a retired librarian. Books are my life! So you probably expect me to bemoan the fact that nowadays six-year-olds are screen-watchers instead of readers.
You’d be wrong. Before spending time with Josh, I’d just assumed that reading was better than screen-watching, but I’ve come to appreciate the fact that watching his iPad serves the same function for Josh as reading a book did for me. And I’m fine with that. Technology changes, and life changes with it. As a little girl in the 1960s, books and libraries were what I needed. As a little boy in the 2020s, Josh’s iPad is giving him exactly what books gave me — they make him happy and teach him about the world.
It’s not as if Josh and Alexa can’t do without their screens. Both had spent an hour running around outside playing. Now they both wanted a little downtime — in iPad Land.
Stories and science
As a child, I loved stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Josh loves stories, too, like Thomas the Tank Engine. But he also loves video clips about science and math and astronomy. And he’s learned a lot from them.
Recently, in conversation, one of the adults in his life asked another, “How many moons does Pluto have?”
“Five,” said Josh, who we didn’t even know had been listening.
I Googled it. He was right!
“How do you know that?” I asked.
Josh is the kind of kid who likes to know how many moons Pluto has. I was the kind of kid who liked to get lost in a good story about a bad witch. It’s great that we both have a medium to get us what we need.
In good company
iPad Land is a world that Josh can both escape to and control. It entertains him and teaches him about the world. And following an afternoon of outdoor play with a pal, it’s a world he can long to return to —and he can share that longing with a friend. And, unlike getting lost in a good book, which is a solitary pursuit, modern kids can and do watch shows together. As much as I've always loved being alone with a book, I rather think that's an upgrade.
I’ll always be bookish. I don’t even own a television and I still enjoy nothing better than getting lost in a good book. Although there are some TV shows and movies I enjoy, screen-watching has never appealed to me. But as much as I love books, I’m here to say that I honestly think that screen-watching is no better or worse than reading.
I love being in the middle of a good book. Josh loves being in the middle of a good video. There’s no reason not to appreciate both.
What kind of content will Josh and Alexa’s children love and what kind of medium will provide it to them? With any luck, I’ll live long enough to find out.
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