Our Kids and Technology: Two Perspectives


Two Columbus Moms Blog contributors, Malini Swank and Aaron Taylor, discussed the role of technology in the lives of their families. The following is a portion of their discussion:

Question: What technology is available for your children?

Malini: My 4-year-old owns her very own LeapPad.  This was strategically purchased for two reasons. Number 1, because unlike Daddy’s iPad, her version is virtually indestructible.  Which is fantastic considering the number of times it’s been dropped, tossed, and flung into her toy bin.

And number 2, because a LeapPad is actually an educational tool, cleverly disguised to look like something mommy and daddy use daily.

As she’s gotten older and less likely to shatter things, we also occasionally share our iPhones and laptops.  We don’t have cable and don’t let her watch much tv in our house, but she does use our laptops to sometimes watch Amazon Prime or kid-friendly YouTube channels.  In short, we have a ton of tech in our house, and she’s allowed to use all of it.

Aaron: My kids don’t have their own personal technology–they’re only three- and one-year-old. But we have pretty standard technology: iPhone, an iPad, and two computers, a desktop and a laptop. Of course, we also have a television–does TV count as technology?

The two computers are essentially off limits to our kids. We use them for work and research, so they stay out of our kids’ hands. The iPad isn’t really used by anyone, including the kids. It’s the forgotten piece of tech in our house. The iPhones and the TV get the most use, though by different audiences. The phones are mostly restricted to us parents, while when the TV is on, it’s mostly tuned to shows for kids. We have a Roku (no cable in our house, either). The PBS Kids channel is a favorite, as are Netflix, Amazon Video, and Disney Junior.

Question: What comes to mind as you consider using or limiting technology at home?

Malini: My daughter’s childhood is vastly different from my own. She was born into a house secured by a “smart” security system that communicates wirelessly via cellular uplink.  Every morning she watches us quickly swipe the LCD screen to adjust the settings as needed.  Our refrigerator talks to her and tells her when we need a new water filter.  She watches us virtually run our lives via our iPhones.  We shop online. We work online. We look up recipes online. For better or worse, technology has infiltrated our lives and it’s here to stay.  My personal philosophy is that technology is like money – it can be used to enhance your life or distract you from living it.

With that in mind, I keep an eye on how my little one uses tech and limit the things that turn her into a lifeless zombie. In our experience, watching tv does this to her, so we limit it.  We also limit most games on the iPhone although I love it when she plays language learning or math based games.   

Instead, we encourage her to use the iPhone to record herself dancing around and being silly, and then watching “the replay.”  I love it when she asks questions, and when I don’t know the answer, she gets to ask Siri.  I love it when she asks to FaceTime with grandma or grandpa because they are far away and she misses them.  Or wants to look up her favorite song so she can dance around to it.

That being said, we do have some strict rules.  We don’t bring tech to the dinner table. (Ok, so if i’m being totally honest, I usually bring my iPhone to the table so I can photograph my dinner and then turn on some music, but then I turn over my phone and try very very hard not to touch it again…)  We also don’t have shows or laptops out when friends are over.  Our play dates are about making messes with paint and Playdough and then jumping around with friends, not sitting on the couch hunched over a screen.  

Aaron: While I can certainly appreciate the productive, creative, and educational ways technology can enrich our lives, I also think about our dependence on technology for instant gratification and distraction. After ten years teaching high school students, I’ve seen how technology can go from a way to encourage curiosity to a way to disconnect from others, to think that Siri and Google have all of the answers, and to escape when something is frustrating, difficult, or boring. I even see it out and about, at restaurants, the grocery store, and in the car. The allure of the screen is often too enticing to turn off.

With so much technology around us, developing the skills to cope and thrive without technology are just as, if not more, important. Yes, technology is a great tool, but it’s only one tool. That’d be like saying you want to be a carpenter and only needing a hammer. Different tasks call for different tools. I’ve seen too many students who think technology is the only tool. They can’t ask probing questions, interview friends and teachers, sit alone and think, persevere through something difficult, handwrite a thoughtful essay or note, solve a physical puzzle. The reflex action to discomfort is to flick open SnapChat or Instagram and just scroll. We want to do what we can to prevent that reflex.

As such, my wife and I do everything we can do foster creativity and curiosity without technology. Does that make things difficult or frustrating at times? Yes! We’re always searching for the next activity, whether it’s bringing out old toys, exploring a stack of books, or driving to a kid-centered activity. Sometimes we just want to download a kid-appropriate game or app and give ourselves a break.

Question: When do you break your technology rules?

Malini: We break our rules when we travel.  Traveling with a young child can often feel like you’re in survival mode.  Transatlantic flights, long road trips, and sitting for hours on a train can be pretty challenging.  A better parent than I would probably pack coloring books and crayons, bags of small toys, interesting and educational puzzles and blocks.  But I’m nothing if not a minimalist packer and so I just grab her LeapPad, a set of headphones, and call it a day. On a recent trip to Italy, we gladly broke our “no tech at the table” rule and in return we got to enjoy a week’s worth of slow, delicious 2 hour dinners while our four-year-old brushed up on her foreign language skills.  (Did you know you can get LeapPad games that teach you Spanish, German, French and Italian?!)

We also ignored our “no tv” rule and indulged her with as many cartoons as she wanted to watch during our hotel down times, as they were all in Italian.  I was fascinated by how quickly she picked up words and how easily she could follow along.  We now have a slightly altered tv rule – she can watch more tv, provided it’s not in English.

Aaron: We break our technology rules to FaceTime relatives and scroll through family photos. I still remember an early discussion about screen time with our pediatrician. She said that screen time is best when it deals with images of people in the family, hence our love of FaceTime and family photos. We’re also Columbus transplants from the Washington, D.C., area, so FaceTime is essential for the family who can’t visit too often.

My kids also love scrolling through photos of themselves or watching family videos from a few weeks ago. We usually supervise this to make sure that nothing precious gets deleted! But we also supervise so that we can ask who is in the photo or what’s happening in the video. An added bonus is that my wife and I get to explore photos and videos that we haven’t looked at in a while. Despite the huge catalog of family photos, we don’t go backwards through them all that often.

We also use technology when we’ve made our kids wait longer than their attention spans can handle. Long car rides and poor restaurant service usually bring out the tech, though again we try to limit things to family photos, the PBS Kids app, or some video about ABC’s and 123’s.

I also use TV as a distraction while I make them lunch, do the dishes, or fold laundry. There are days when a two-child naptime just doesn’t happen. If I didn’t use TV to distract while doing household chores or taking care of business emails, then nothing would get done until after bedtime. That’s just not a reasonable way to parcel out my time. I will say that we severely limit the shows our kids can watch, especially as a distraction. 9 out of 10 times they are watching Super Why, Sesame Street, or some version of Mickey Mouse. Our TV isn’t a free-for-all, even with kids shows.

I know my bias for TV comes from my time as an English teacher. I appreciate the storytelling of good kids’ shows. Not only do good kids’ shows have an arc to follow, but they also have a definitive end. On TV, Daniel Tiger explores eating new foods and comes to a final resolution about his feelings and habits. On the PBS Kids app, my kids can feed Daniel Tiger infinite slices of kiwi and cucumber. There’s a huge difference, right? One has a logical beginning, middle, and end. The other is endless. One can foster discussion and empathy, the other is mindless.

Question: Does the age of your children affect your opinion about technology?

Malini: I’ve never been a huge fan of screen time without interaction.  Little ones can’t interact easily with technology – and appear to turn into little zombies as they stare at the screen.  As my little one has gotten older, we’ve given her more access. Her favorite ways of using technology include one of the following:

  • Asking Siri silly questions
  • FaceTiming with grandparents
  • Video recording herself dancing around
  • Learning words in different languages

I’m sure the specific ways that she uses technology plays a huge factor in my opinion.

Aaron: I’m right there with you when it comes to broadening access as kids get older. Once in middle and high school, kids need help learning to type, manipulating a word processing document or spreadsheet, navigating databases and resources for research. But then again, that’s a different kind of technology access compared to videos and apps.

I think my strictness and worry come from one fact: my kids are too young to do anything really productive or creative with technology. (Plus, the truly robust technology is too fragile for them to handle on their own. I don’t want a shattered phone!)

As I said before, I also continue to worry about how access to technology will affect their ability to cope and thrive without it. I want my kids to talk to people and deal with the messiness of conversation, not post to Facebook just to rant with keyboard courage. I want my kids to know the difference between a credible source and just someone posting on the Internet. I want my kids to be able to occupy themselves without a screen. Perhaps what’s really important is the type of access to and the structure we provide with technology.

I’ve seen my little ones get sucked into a screen. I want to limit that as much as possible.

Question: Final thoughts?

Malini: It’s good to remember that technology is neither good nor bad.  It’s simply a tool.  If we’re careful, we can use it to greatly enrich and expand our lives.  

Aaron: The richest moments of my life have been without technology. Perhaps technology can get us to the moment, but technology should never be the moment.

Readers, what do you think? What role does technology play in your home? How have your views about technology changed and expanded over time? Comment and keep the discussion going!