Spare the iPhone, Lose an Opportunity

This post is in response to an article published by Focus on the Family Singapore published two days ago titled “Spare the iPhone, Socialise the Child” written by 22-year-old Economics undergraduate Abraham Ponniah. Dads for Life even said it was a “nice article”.

I cannot disagree more with that opinion.

To begin with, Mr Ponniah’s article, lightly peppered with disclaimers of “not definitive” research and a generous dash of personal experience, sets the tone with a portion that immediately did not sit well with me:

“To get the maximal benefit out of these devices without incurring any of the negatives is a matter of balancing how much children are exposed to such devices. I believe that it is better to err on the safe side.”

Mr Ponniah, the Blogfather would like to have a word with you.

1. Are We Even Talking About iPhones Anymore?

As much as I feel for Mr Ponniah’s family (I used to travel a lot in my previous job after my son was born), his personal account of having to communicate with her sister overseas via Skype, Whatsapp and FaceTime is, unfortunately, oversimplifying his own point on two counts.

Count 1: The January 2012 Stanford study which was quoted in the CNN article (and subsequently in Mr Ponniah’s) hinged on a survey conducted through Discovery Girls magazine, involving 3,461 girls aged between 8 and 12, and covered a wide range of activities, including “watching video (television, YouTube, movies,) listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to Facebook or MySpace, texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting“.

I see a few problems with this survey being used in context to Mr Ponniah’s views:

  1. The survey isn’t just talking about mobile devices here, but about daily tween girls’ activities that may hinder social interaction. That being said, being so focused on such a set of activities already sets this survey up towards a predetermined result.
  2. Parents’ concerns about their child’s mobile device usage start at 2 1/2 years old, very much earlier than the 8-12 year demographic covered in the survey. I should know, my kid has had his own iPad 1 for a little over a year (he turns 4 in December).
  3. Contrary to the researcher’s opinion, the survey results cannot easily be applied to boys as well. A much larger, more well-defined statistical analysis of social networking sites show that females, being as community-driven as they are, dominate the social networks. The Telegraph also has an article published in June about how “women are more attracted to social networking websites“, while guys are more inclined towards online entertainment, gaming, gambling and music. The psyches between the two genders are almost completely different in this respect. So it goes without saying, when you put the two contradicting surveys together, you are going to get “not definitive”.

Count 2:?Circumstantially, Mr Ponniah’s family doesn’t have much choice but to communicate with his sister online, but the rest of us — who have all our family at home — do. It’s a fallacy to educate families about technology control when the circumstances are so vastly different; Mr Ponniah’s experience simply cannot apply to the audience at large served by the Focus on the Family blog; he doesn’t have enough information about the rest of us to be convincing.

Social Interaction Is Engagement

Mr Ponniah believes that “one of the main reasons (smart devices are increasingly being used in children’s education) is (their) ability to grab and hold the attention of a child”. What he fails to understand is what parents and schools know: that modern technology is an unavoidable part of our children’s future, and education in the technology is as important as the education in the content the technology holds.

There is no refuting that one-on-one social interaction is paramount to a child’s social development. All this blog does is talk about how parents need to spend much more time with their kids than they already are. But parents — dads in particular — are the best-equipped to deal with both engaging their children with technology as well as personally engaging them as parents. So why make it sound like it has to be a choice?

Children cannot afford to fear technology. Neither can parents afford the resentment that develops when they restrict their child’s use of technology. Of course, rules need to be set in order to balance the scale, but not, as Mr Ponniah puts it, “balancing how much children are exposed to such devices”. We don’t want to fight with the devices, Mr Ponniah, we want to work with it.

Forcing the Devices Off Anyone is Terrible Instruction

I will be honest, as per Mr Ponniah’s request; technology, whether mobile, office, home, entertainment or otherwise, plays an integral role in all our lives, every waking minute of every day. But his final point makes technology sound like the Hunchback of Notre Dame; unwanted and misunderstood. The problem, as he succinctly explains, is that “(w)hile things relating to our work and our recreation are undoubtedly important, nurturing children should be of at least equal importance.”

The solution isn’t abject removal of any device from your child’s hands, and replacing it with another object of the child’s (suddenly diminished) desire; that’s such an authoritative move (and in the child’s eyes, a rather rude one, too). Technology is by no means a replacement for parenting, but parents can leverage on children’s attraction to technology to help with their parenting. Parents just need to recognise this, and this is where the parents, not the children, need education.

The Blogfather Recommends

Parenting is a full-time job. So are actual full-time jobs. If you wouldn’t give a second thought to using technology for work, why give a second thought to using technology for parenting? Granted, the learning curve to striking a balance between parent-to-child social interaction and technology is steep, but it likely isn’t going to be any harder than your on-job training during your work probation. We just have to remember, we run the technology, not the other way round.

That being said, it is essential that parents experienced in the art of online social communication (that’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it?) educate their kids in one very vital fact: words cannot replace direct, face-to-face communication. Emotions through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice are lost through text messaging and wonky videoconferencing feeds (even I learnt this the hard way, over years of instant messaging dependency).

That’s why, mums and dads, if you’re thinking of trying out what is suggested here, you must ensure you place yourself as the first and main point of direct contact as much as you can when guiding your child through using technology. Your presence is immediately and much more felt to your child than a back-lit screen that, despite modern advancements, still can’t emote very well.

To Mr Ponniah: erring on the side of safety is still erring. I have learned much more about parenting whilst erring on the side of technology than I would if I decided that my son shouldn’t play with an iPad. The difference in my tact and your opinion is that my wife and I are sitting right next to my son teaching him how to use that iPad than just leaving him to his own devices.

When it comes to the debate over technology versus parenting, we can take both sides. We don’t need to choose.

Image via Social Firefly; apparently they agree with me too.

5 Replies to “Spare the iPhone, Lose an Opportunity”

  1. It’s not because I know you Winston, that I agree with you, but that you have rightly pointed out all the holes in his arguments that seem to be stuck together with his post-it note research. I can tell you one thing, he will make a very good journalist in the future, because he knows how to only focus on one aspect of research, draw further hypothesis from it, ignore everything else, and then conclude to agree with himself. The sad part about it, is that many readers will think it is a legitimate “study” because he is quoting some sort of publication.

    Anyway, well done on this article and exactly the way I would have picked that article apart 🙂

    p.s. not going to even ask if he is a parent…

  2. Hello Winston/Blogfather(Not sure which you prefer?), I am the one who wrote the article, and let me firstly thank you for writing this response. I am not saying this to patronize, but I sincerely agree with a lot that you have pointed out. I hope you don’t mind that I take this opportunity just to clear up some of the things that I mentioned in my article though.

    I guess the title of the article does seem to suggest it, but my intention was never to convince people to bar their children from using all sorts of technology. That is why I chose to bring up at the start that there is research that proves the usefulness of these devices in the development of children and also why I said it is a matter of balancing the extent to which these devices are used. Perhaps what I should have also mentioned, which I think you explained brilliantly, was that the way that these devices are used is equally if not more vital. I guess my main concern lay with those who leave their children alone with these devices for long periods of time, something that I have increasingly noticed.

    As you read my article, you certainly would have noticed that most of the things I say is based almost solely on things I’ve noticed and experienced. The reason why I felt it appropriate to do so was because it was not my intention to push this forward as an academic article or anything of that sort. Rather, it was and is supposed to be is simply my take on the issue, which people are free to agree with and equally free to disagree with, which is part of the reason that I embrace your reply.

    Just a short bit on why I included the Stanford study. It was actually precisely because I knew the situation I described would not be applicable to everyone else out there. I do note the points you raised about applying the article to my own article, but what I was really trying to say was (and I again hope you don’t mind if I use your words because you put it very nicely) that these devices “cannot replace direct, face-to-face communication. Emotions through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice are lost through text messaging and wonky videoconferencing feeds”.

    Having said all this, I still do hold to what I stated my belief was in the article, that it is better to err on the safe side. The way I see things, there does exist a balance that parents can find which will best grow their child. However, it is quite a tough balance to find. As such, what I meant by erring on the safe side, was that if a parent does sense that the child is becoming too attached to the device or if they too often use the device as a way to occupy the child while they go about their own tasks, then they should hold back the device, not completely, but according to their own discretion and make sure that they get that vital social interaction in. Of course, replacing the technology which just another toy without adding the interaction would lead to zero benefits, so at the end of the day, it really comes back to how they use the tools available to them and on this point, I think we both can agree.

    1. Mr Ponniah. I have been expecting you.

      No, seriously. You have no idea how heartened I am that you’ve responded with your clarifications. And I do have to stop calling you that. I was told it sounds too lawyerish (blame my legal industry leanings).

      As a parent, I happen to be very vocal about these things (cocky is the current Word of the Week in my dictionary right now), so I do have to apologise if I came down too hard on you, but now that an explanation has been proffered and an agreement has been reached (yes we both can agree), please, call me Winston.

      More importantly, your article spurred discourse (and a heated one at that); that’s actually the best thing that can happen to a writer’s work. but we both understand this (at least we do now) to be a hot-potato topic, littered with inconclusive research, so it pays for both of us to be extra-careful what we put out there. At this juncture, I know I certainly need to.

      Abraham, it has been an absolute pleasure being able to speak with you here (and no, I’m not being patronising either). I do look forward to seeing what you can come up with next (and I promise I’ll be much nicer next time).

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