Toddlers on Screen

May 21, 2019
By Ember SwiftEditor: Wei Xuanyi
A kid uses a flat computer. [Tuchong]


Editor's Note: Ember Swift, the proud mother of two, is a writer and an internationally touring musician. Originally from Toronto, she has lived in Beijing since 2008. In this article, she explains that toddlers are not quite ready for touch-screen technology.

Years ago, when my daughter was just two years old, I installed a few toddler-appropriate games on my smart phone. Despite feeling —— strongly — that limiting (and managing) the amount of screen time children of all ages have, I know technology is the future; children should at least be occasionally exposed to phenomena like touch screens, if for nothing else than to assure they 're acclimated to the modern world.

But I had a practical reason for installing these games. At that time, I had a newborn. Sometimes, when I was alone, I needed my toddler to stay near me or stand still so I could attend to my infant son without her running off. I kept the phone handy for "special occasions" (more like unique situations), like a solo visit to the dentist, to which I had brought both children, but had no one to watch them while I was being examined. I'd strap my son into a portable car seat and tell my daughter she could play a special game on my phone. I assured myself an educational game or an activity to improve her coordination had advantages too. This helped me feel better about the "evil screen time" so many of my Western parent friends were advising against.

One of the games was a puzzle. It teaches toddlers to recognize unique shapes, and then to match them to the empty spots in the picture of the same shape. She really enjoyed this one. Her favorite puzzle was one that looked like a car, and when she played it she was eerily quiet, as though mesmerized. Once the puzzle is complete, the app animates the car and, with a moving background, makes it appear as if the car is driving along a road. Incidentally, she discovered (and showed me) that if she swiped to the left on the car, it would speed up. Swiping right slowed it down. Double tapping the car would stop it from moving at all. These little extras, hidden within apps, are the things that a busy mother doesn't have time to discover.

Two things happened in these scenarios that concerned me:

First, since she didn't get to use my phone very often (except in these choice situations), her concentration was intense — often zombie-like. As a result, no matter how much time I allowed her to play with the phone (and respectfully monitored when she had completed the puzzle she was working on rather than interrupting her), the moment I told my toddler that her time was up was always a miserable one. She protested more strongly to losing this "toy" than any other toy. Often, it became a physical struggle to remove it from her grip. What is it about this little device that is so addictive? I wondered.

I can certainly muse over the various answers to those questions, but it was the second situation that truly cemented my opinion regarding touch screens for toddlers.

One day, while we were travelling in a taxi together, my daughter was sitting to my left, and she was looking out the side window. The taxi was stuck in Beijing traffic, which was moving very slowly. Suddenly I watched my daughter rise up on her knees, take her finger to the inside of the window of the car door and, I couldn't believe what happened next: she swiped left. She swiped again, as though trying to move the car forward more quickly. She swiped a third time, wondering why the swiping was not causing an increase in motion.

That's the moment I knew, once and for all, that toddlers are not quite ready for this technology. Reality and the digital realm need to be understood as separate before children should be exposed to these games. For her, the world could be manipulated with her finger on a touch screen, just like the game could, but of course that isn't the way the world works.

Very carefully, I told her that a window is not like Mommy's phone and she was visibly disappointed that she couldn't control the car's speed. She sat back down and looked passively out the window once more while I silently resolved, right then and there, to find other means to engage her in those tricky circumstances.

Now, my kids are 7 and 5, respectively. They are both in school, and they certainly engage with touch-screen technology on a daily basis, not to mention the fact they see us using these devices regularly. They also have access to their grandparents' tablet, and they regularly request certain videos to be shown on repeat on our phones through WeChat (an instant messaging app). They're modern kids.

The difference, however, is they now are quite aware that touch screens aren't windows into reality, and that windows aren't touch screens that show us a digital world we can manipulate. I think gauging when this happens is at a parents' discretion, but such a capacity for discerning these differences is probably quite obvious after they have become fully conversational and can understand our explanations.

Nevertheless, occasionally I still think about that moment when my daughter swiped the window in an attempt to speed up traffic. If only that were possible, I think, wistfully. That would certainly solve the puzzle of any gridlocked city.

Ember Swift and her children [For Women of China]


(Women of China English Monthly April 2019 issue)

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