In Defense of the Screen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Here’s an entirely different perspective on screens — and why they might actually be good for kids.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about screens (or tablets) for kids. Are they good for them, or are they bad? What’s the right age to hand your child one for the first time? It seems everyone has an opinion, including OZY, which ran a piece recently called “No Screen for You!” There were a lot of good points in it, and I salute Anne Miller’s decision to keep her kid away from tablets for now.
But I have an entirely different perspective. I am the mom of a child who is developmentally delayed and medically fragile. And screens, especially the iPad screen, have made all the difference in the world for her.
OZY said parents should keep their kids away from tablets. This reader begged to differ.
My daughter, Esmé, is almost 3. She has a rare genetic form of epilepsy known as PCDH19 female limited epilepsy. She has severe delays in motor skills — she cannot point or sit without assistance. She is nonverbal. Esmé is also legally blind, with a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment (CVI). There is more about Esmé’s condition on my blog, if you are interested.
Esmé is also a curious, excitable child, and the screens in her life have done the exact opposite of what the primarily television-based studies have reported. (Naysayers cite these studies as proof of the detrimental effects of screen time.)
Let me give you my own list of why saying no to screens is not an option for us:
- Cause and effect: Esmé’s physical and health constraints have always made it challenging to understand her cognitive abilities. Every day she shows us that she understands and knows more than we think, but in the early days she was so weak and sick that she could not show us with real toys that she understood cause and effect, a basic stage in Piaget’s Sensorimotor stage of child development. It was the Duck Duck Moose Itsy Bitsy Spider app that finally proved to us that Esmé understood what she was doing. She hit the spot that made the sound of running water, over and over and over. That was the moment that sealed our relationship with the iPad.
- Broadening her horizons: Unlike many children her age, Esmé has limited interaction with peers. She is too vulnerable to getting sick, and there are few programs that can handle her medical, educational and physical needs. She doesn’t get much out of playgrounds and children’s museums. We cannot take family vacations to new places. The screens in her life introduce her to new and unfamiliar places, sounds and faces; they enable her to explore.
- Esmé’s voice: Although she is not yet systematically using an iPad for communication, we are laying the groundwork for a communication system with the help of her iPad (and a parallel low-tech system). There are a number of apps that do the work that expensive and awkward systems used to do. Now children can easily and (relatively) inexpensively access their communication tools from a young age. Carly Fleischmann and others have made clear the benefits of such flexible screen-based systems. Esmé now has limited means of communicating her needs, and learning a system on an iPad sooner rather than later will provide her with a flexible communication system. Her iPad will be her voice.
- Vision: With limited vision, Esmé has additional challenges to encountering the world. Luckily, her visual impairment, CVI, can improve with work. A series of apps can help us interact with her in ways that are visually meaningful and can improve her acuity over time.
- It isn’t alone time: Screen time doesn’t have to be alone time. In fact, I think I may interact with Esmé more while we engage in iPad or television time than I do when she plays with her more “physical” toys. With the iPad, we talk more about what we are doing, whereas her physical toys are more part of her own imaginative realm.
- It is a tool: I think the most important thing about the screens in our children’s lives — whether they have physical, cognitive or learning challenges — is that the screens are tools. And, as with any other tool, you decide how to use them.
Editor’s note: Laurene Powell Jobs, a major shareholder in Apple, the producer of iPads, is a key investor in OZY.