On Toddlers and Tech

Jan 8, 2013

Over the holidays, we took L to visit her grandparents. After opening presents, she found her way to my dad's post-midlife-crisis purchase - an absurdly enormous television bought specifically for soccer-watching. L walked right up to it and, seeing what she thought was the world's largest tablet, tried touching the screen to find apps or bring up the photo gallery.

My toddler's intrigue with technology is both encouraging (in that she's smart) and alarming (in that we don't want her fixated on screens). She asks us to bring up videos or play music on the tablet or computer, but most of all, she loves carrying around anything resembling a cell phone - TV controller, Wii remote, whatever - to pretend-talk to friends or family. As she learns more and more about technology, I worry I'm keeping up less and less. Apps, surfing, social media. How will I maintain pace with my daughter when it took me more than 30 years to get a tablet, and she'll likely have her own before she's six?

Look, I'm not a newbie when it comes to computers. I grew up on 8-bit Nintendo, obsessed over Sid Meier's Civilization, and played so many text-driven adventure games it's both impressive and sad. My family had an email address before anyone else I knew. I remember hanging out in newsgroups and talking to random strangers in chat rooms way before AOL was mainstream. In short, I liked computers before it was okay to like computers. I just didn't keep up. Maybe it was my own changing financial and free-time priorities.

Whatever the reason, I'm not even 35, and I already feel hopelessly out of date when it comes to new smartphone specs or the point of Tumblr. I had to have someone 20 years younger than me explain Instagram. I used to be cyber-cool, but that was when they still called it "cyberspace." Meanwhile, L will inevitably become an expert simply by being around this kind of technology all the time. It's the great generational digital divide - what I'll have to re-learn, she'll pick up through osmosis.

Computers are already part of her daily life, and she's not even three. We use my Android tablet to read Owly comics, look at photos from Gramma and re-watch her Montessori holiday concert ad infinitum. L also uses the tablet or laptop to watch "TV" more than she ever does with our actual television. With Daddy's help, YouTube is a trove of animal videos (tapirs! pangolins! red pandas!). With Mommy, L enjoys watching all sorts of cartoons.

So far, our daughter still prefers Lego, painting, picture books and Play-Doh to tablets. And she doesn't get to hold a tablet without one of us right by her side. (She gets our phones as long as they're off.) In a few years, though, there will be many ground rules to devise and revise regarding L's use of technology. We don't want to become a family where each person sits at the dinner table, paying more attention to a small screen than the other people in the room. And of course, there are important safety, security and supervision considerations. Although, frankly, by the time L is eight, I have a feeling it'll be me going to her for help and advice.

So now I put my questions to you. Are you worried about your kids' exposure to technology? Do you worry about keeping up? How do you and your children use computers? L's tried a few simple puzzle and drawing apps, but I'd love some Google Play or AppStore recommendations in the comments. I'll share my recommendations/experiences in a future blog. 

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock 'n' roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are collaborating on a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who may already be smarter than both of them. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario. 

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