Why you should care
Because here’s a screen time solution the experts can agree on.
The smartphone has become the dominant piece of technology of our age, sucking even more of our attention into its brilliantly engineered clutches. It’s bad enough for adults — hold on a sec, I just got six Slack messages — but keeping the phone from warping the brains of young kids can be a challenge.
My 2-year-old twins are constantly grabbing at my phone because they see me doing the same — stand by, I’ve got to reply to this group text — and they like the way it lights up. They also grab at plenty of other forbidden things (curtains, knives, their father’s throat), but the phone is becoming an increasingly hard thing to deny them. One possible solution? The humble calculator.
One day when we took a rare family trip out for dinner, we spotted a woman in line with a toddler on her hip clutching an old-school hand-held calculator. My wife and I looked at each other and instantly saw the brilliance. They do make fake plastic phones for kids, but here was a real device with an extremely low-resolution screen that had the added benefit of helping teach about numbers. And it was cheap enough not to worry about it breaking.
Our kids took to them instantly, pressing the buttons and watching the numbers appear.
A quick trip to Walgreens later and we had a pair of Wexford calculators (total damage: $8.83). Our kids took to them instantly, pressing the buttons and watching the numbers appear. They also will hold the calculator up to their ear and say “hello?” followed by some adorable babbling.
University of Michigan pediatrics professor Jenny Radesky, an expert on children and screen time, says she gave her own kids calculators, and that children simply appreciate having a hand-held item that’s “theirs.”
“I like letting my kids explore technology more symbolically like this because it gives me a peek inside their mind: what they like about the technology they see grown-ups using, what they wish they could do and even misconceptions about how technology works,” Radesky says. “I also think it’s an important mirror for parents. When my son first picked up his fake phone, stared at it, frowned, put his hand on his hip, I knew that must be what I look like with my phone.”
Fortunately, calculators are not as addictive as real phones. Our kids will put them down after a bit and go in search of Legos, a stuffed animal or a book. This stands in contrast to the TV, which they rarely watch but will prompt howls when it’s turned off — a sign of its power.
Every parent has different rules about screen time. The World Health Organization recently said kids under the age of 1 should not look at electronic screens at all, and kids ages 2 to 4 should have less than an hour of “sedentary screen time” per day. This comes after a study has shown that 97 percent of kids under 4 use mobile devices.
Temple University psychology professor and child development expert Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says we really don’t know how screen time impacts development, given how new all of this is. Smartphones and tablets have only proliferated in the past decade — with recent years seeing a multibillion-dollar industry form around apps designed for kids. Hirsh-Pasek says we should treat screens like dessert: Place some limits around them, but you don’t need to go for a complete ban.
And this is as much about how the adults live their lives as anything.
“In the first couple years of life in particular — but I would argue much of the way up — human-to-human interaction is a big deal,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “And right now, we haven’t found the proper balance.” She points to research showing that kids don’t retain nearly as much from e-readers that read books aloud as they do from a human reading to them.
So the calculator is a handy distraction in a pinch, particularly when you’re out in public. But for all of our sakes, it’s best to put down the iPhone and pick up Green Eggs and Ham, which I’ll do … right after I send this email.