The XX Factor

It’s an App, Not a Book

I remain the kids and technology curmudgeon. When I hear, on NPR’s Morning Edition , digital app developer Michael Kripalani singing the praises of his 2-year-old’s ability to navigate his iPad, I wince. And when Kripalani-whose company has the right to develop Dr. Seuss’ books for digital media, so he’s something of an interested observer-says that “it’s really, really awe-inspiring when you see a 3- or 4- year old child that really gets [the iPad],” I want to shake him right out of my car radio.

It’s not awe-inspiring. I love my iPad, and it itself is pretty awe-inspiring-but it was, in fact, developed to be so simple that a child could do it. And when I see a child as young as 2 or 3 hunched over that, or some other piece of digital equipment, my reaction is never awe. It’s mostly disbelief.

I’ve seen some of the children’s book apps that have been created for the iPad, and I agree that some beautiful things have been done. For older kids, I’m convinced that the tablet is the textbook of the future. But for a small child, still learning things like language and vocab, that tablet is really nothing more than a very expensive cause-and-effect toy. Poke the bunny image, and it hops. Perhaps it says the word “bunny,” but studies have repeatedly shown that toddlers don’t learn words well from television, but need, instead, an actual human speaking being. Until researchers prove that the iPad and iPhone act diferently on a child’s mental processes than a television, I’ll continue to be convinced that for young kids, these aren’t “educational toys,” but pricey distractions.

And as distractions, they excel. And that, too, can be a problem. New York Public Library children’s librarian Elizabeth Bird told NPR that she’d rather see a parent in a grocery store hand a child a phone playing an app from the classic picture book Freight Train than Angry Birds. I see her point. A Freight Train app probably creates some positive associations with the book (although I’d be curious to see whether, after the excitement of the blatantly interactive app, the actual book, with its more subtle engagement, is a disappointment). But why hand the kid the phone in the grocery store at all?

With one exception-airplane travel-I think we’re too ready to sate our kids’ boredom or whining or even outright temper tantrums with a little digital dose. I see kids playing video games at restaurants, doctor’s offices and, infuriatingly, while sitting at an NBA finals game during the action. I sympathize-kids can be a pain under those circumstances, and there may be factors I know nothing about. (I, for example, might let a kid take a video game to, let’s say, not his brother’s first hockey game of the day, but the third.) But when, exactly, do they learn that sometimes you’re a little bored? Sometimes you wait, or converse with your parents, sometimes you make your own entertainment, or sometimes you just sit and politely do nothing?

I suspect they don’t. And the trouble with digital book apps is that they fool us into thinking that that’s okay. That we’re not just silencing the child, but actually doing good in the process. So I say, bring on the Angry Birds. Sometimes we’re going to hand over a digital babysitter. But let’s not pretend we’re doing anything else.