As schools start a new academic year, we examine whether electronic devices make children smarter or turn them into zombies.
Gadget addiction: The struggle between parents and children
When my son was born, I had Africa on my side. For the first seven years of motherhood, we lived in a landlocked, sub-Saharan country with internet so slow that you could make a cup of tea while you waited for one email to load. When my son was a baby, Facebook was a rare luxury because of the time it took photos to upload. YouTube? Forget about it.
My son, followed three years later by my daughter, grew up barefoot for most of the year, making games out of rocks and sticks and the occasional grasshopper. Then we moved to Dubai.
In Mall of the Emirates, we were surrounded by children on screens. Their parents chatted to each other or played on their own devices. “Let’s play I Spy,” I chirped, trying to distract my own children, who looked on enviously at their new peer group. They indulged me one round of the (admittedly boring) game, then drifted off towards a mounted screen playing a Disney movie.
Slowly, we made friends and were invited to people’s homes, and in this way we came to know family life, Dubai-style: a flat-screen TV dominating the living room; an Xbox in a side room for the brother/father; an iPad in the hands of the 4-year-old; a laptop on the couch, the mother tapping out searches; the infant in her baby seat, watching Baby Einstein on an iPhone.
“What can you do?” these parents said. “That’s how this generation is.” As if the children called the shots.
For my birthday that year, my husband bought me an iPad. I don’t remember asking for one. If I was excited for a few days, downloading BBC News and NPR, it faded as my son took over. Each time I saw him, he had one question: “iPad?” It got to the point where he didn’t even have to say the word; I knew what he wanted by the look in his eye.
A harsh regime of 45 minutes per day of screen time after 7pm, weekends only, was instituted at our house, in response to the moody, wolf-like boy that he became if he had too much screen time – a special brand of post-Geometry Dash crankiness. He regularly protested his unfair lot in life. “All my friends get to play as much iPad as they want.”
He wasn’t lying. Juggling zombies was how it felt to schedule play dates with his googly eyed peers. You will know the zombies from their slack faces, their flat tonal affect. They whisper a greeting. They forget to say goodbye, not out of rudeness, but because they haven’t noticed anyone else in the room. When you take away their devices for a trip to the pool, they tread water and stare off into space, without the urge for a game of Marco Polo.
It didn’t take long for Minecraft and Dragon City to invade my son’s conversations. “Talk to me about real things,” I implored. To show him what it felt like, I told him about an imaginary app I made up: Frootsies. A grapefruit was launched at an apple and exploded. He preferred this topic – about a non-existent game – to questions about school.
In our new city, I was the crazy one. Me, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who “uniformly discourage passive media use, on any type of screen” for children under the age of 2. Experiments on human children and mice pointed to the same conclusions: exposure to screens that flash various images in rapid succession led to problems with sustained attention. Or, as my son says when I ask him why he’d rather watch his sister make imaginary chocolate cake than read a book that he loves: “Because it’s on a screen.” Even at the paediatrician’s office in Dubai, the one place where empirical evidence should reign over local customs, Cartoon Network holds court.
It’s all so new. iPads came onto the scene only four years ago, in 2010. Even if parents knew irrefutably that a certain number of hours on the iPad did irreversible damage to their child’s development, would it really change anything? Because I’ve lost count of how many times other mothers have confided their gratitude towards the iPad and the way it keeps their children quiet and occupied for hours on end.
In our family, we thought we were managing. We had time limits; two children with interests in various sports and arts. My husband and I stayed off our screens in the evenings, and I talked with my son about strategies that I used to avoid the Facebook vortex. In the midst of all of this, the iPad struggle came to a head one evening because of a homework assignment: a persuasive essay listing five reasons why his parents should buy him an item of his choice. An iPad. Technically, he already had one, but he objected to sharing it with his sister – he wanted his own.
My son sat at his desk, writing in longhand. He was rushing the essay, because writing about his love for the iPad was going to interfere with his allotted time for playing on the iPad. He showed me a hastily finished page, and when I pointed out that he had a few more sentences to add, tears sprung to his eyes. Real tears, not the kind that the character Stampy cries while galloping through the Minecraft stratosphere. I think I saw his hands shaking a bit, like he couldn’t wait to touch the screen.
“You’re crying because you can’t wait another five minutes for the iPad?” I demanded.
“What’s more important, doing a good job on your homework or playing iPad?”
“Homework,” he mumbled miserably, slumping back into his chair.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I vented to my husband. “Let’s throw that thing out the window.”
The man who bought the dreadful thing in the first place agreed that it was time for it to disappear for awhile. Not as a punishment or a reprimand – just to stop it getting in the way of peaceful evenings. “Tell them I need it for work,” he suggested. We would hide it somewhere, but tell the kids that it wasn’t in the house.
The first announcement went over without much drama. My husband explained that he needed it for a special project he was working on with a colleague – the kids nodded. The implications of the new regime only hit my son 24 hours later. “Will he erase all my apps?” he asked anxiously when I picked him up from school. “How will I know what’s happening in Dragon City? They send me updates every day.”
I told him that he would have to survive without the updates and that he could ask his dad about the apps. Out of an odd mixture of cowardice and disgust, I left the house so that I wouldn’t have to see the withdrawal symptoms kick in.
By day two, my son was despondent, morose – the way lab rats become when they realise there’s no pattern to the electric shocks. He didn’t cry, nor did he launch any arguments. My daughter, three years younger and definitely less attached to the machine, didn’t seem to notice. Without a thought about how his actions might appear from my vantage point, he started to read more. He played outside with his sister. In the time the iPad had occupied, he wrote a graphic novel.
Our evenings were spent together in the living room, because without the noise of the iPad, he didn’t have to retreat upstairs. I was becoming increasingly sure that I’d done the right thing. Except for Dragon City updates, there was nothing lacking in his life.
By day five, a handwritten letter appeared on my desk:
“In my three most favourite games, I have worked so hard. I have got so many things on Clash of Clans. I have worked so hard! On Dragon City, I am at level 14. I’ve got nearly 20 dragons and I am about to hatch an electric dragon and I have a lot of things I need to do!”
I was touched by his (misplaced) earnestness. The out-of-character appearance of exclamation marks. The repetition of “worked so hard”. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to work hard on an iPad game, but nevermind. My son’s printed words were a sign that talking was no longer a worthwhile effort for him. I tucked the letter away in my desk, but it followed me through my day. Instead of seeing the iPad through my own perspective, I got a glimpse of his.
I hadn’t realised how much he invested himself in the various levels and skills. The jury is still out on the long-term value of his labours, but ... but ... here was a trajectory apparent to him that was previously invisible to me. My son was tracking his progress while waging iPad battles. I had missed that part.
When you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught. The hiatus of the iPad was destined to school me more than my poor, deprived son. After seven days, the iPad reappeared, and, much to his relief, no apps had been erased. Dragon City was still banging down his door. His eggs were hatching. His dragons were hungry. We went back to the same regime of 45 minutes per day, only on weekends, after homework was finished, but instead of it seeming like the worst deal in town, his screen time was greeted with fanfare.
In the meantime, I haven’t solved any of the larger issues, for society or myself. I still worry for my son’s ability to resist the candy-coated universe of bloodless deaths. I don’t want him to become a teenager who texts through dinner or a 20-something who can’t hold up his end of a conversation. What to do but continue the vigilant battle against dragons and Enderman, which I’m sure to lose in ways I cannot begin to fathom?
I still juggle zombies on play dates.
I still wish Africa was on my side.
Tej Rae is a former high-school English teacher from Washington, United States, who has lived in Dubai for two years.