Edmonds Kind of Dad: How much technology is too much for kids?

By David Kaufer

The topic of children’s use of technology has received a bit of attention recently, with last week’s post from noted New York Times technology columnist and blogger David Pogue, who wrote about “A Parent’s Struggle With a Child’s iPad Addiction.” In the article, Pogue explains how his 6-year old constantly wants to use the iPad, whether its to create PuppetPals animated videos, or play with EasyBeats to lay down musical tracks.

Pogue asks the poignant question: “Come on, how can apps like that be bad for a kid? Is it really that much different from playing with paper cutouts? Or blocks? Or a toy drum set?”

I don’t think any of us really has an answer.

Parents in the early 21st century are finding themselves in similar positions as latter-half-20th-century parents who first grappled with “how much TV time is too much?” The technology has greatly changed and evolved of course, but the dilemma remains the same. My generation was the original video game generation – the first to receive and play with home-based Atari consoles and games as well as primitive handheld electronic games such as the Coleco football game. I distinctly remember getting easily hooked on these games (like most of my friends), but at the end of the day, I can’t see any permanent damage that may have resulted (although maybe I can attribute my short attention span to the video games).

But it was a legitimate concern for parents in the 1980s – and is more so today as technology is that much more accessible and pervasive than it was before. And our house is no exception. I have no idea how it happened, but at any given time we have two laptops, one desktop computer, an iPad, iTouch, iPhone and a new Windows 7 smart phone. And our 5-year-old twins know how to access and use nearly every device. The iPad is especially popular and we have to make sure the twins share it – although it was purchased primarily with the hope that it would serve as a communications device for Stone, who has autism. Alas, this hasn’t happened yet (sadly, we’ve not yet invested the time and energy needed to get him to use the cool apps available to help communicate).

As one who has grown up with technology, and has primarily built my career around it, I’m obviously biased. I feel the more the twins know about technology (and are comfortable/capable using it), the better positioned they’ll be in the future in both their academic and professional careers. But I also worry that they spend too much time in front of screens. Stone tends to spend most of his time playing a great “Thomas the Tank Engine” app. In it, he has to help Thomas navigate mazes of tracks to pick up freight loads – it requires him to think ahead and make moves to avoid dead ends, etc. He’s also mastered a matching game as well as a puzzle game in it. All of these are good mental exercises, but I know they can be too much if it’s all he does.

Ty, on the other hand, is primarily interested in the iPad (and laptops) to gain access to YouTube videos. Last summer and fall, while he was in his huge Mario game-playing obsession, he discovered hundreds of videos accessible on YouTube – mostly kids or reviewers playing the game (and videotaping it) to share tips and “hacks.” It was amazing – Ty would watch a series of videos and proceed to play the game and advance to levels totally unfamiliar to us. Now that he’s into his “Kung Zhu” phase, he has since moved on, but YouTube still serves a purpose. He now wants to watch video after video of kids playing with and staging fights between their Kung Zhu hamsters. Again, he would watch that all day if he had the opportunity. So we have to monitor and limit this time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is an issue that’s going to every go away – I’m fully prepared for it to become even bigger as they get older and start to use the computers more frequently and new versions of the iPad (and who knows what else will be introduced) find their way into our household. The question remains, how do you keep kids from getting addicted while appreciating the benefits that come from technologies such as the iPad? The answer will vary from child to child and parent to parent.

David Kaufer is a fun-loving Super Dad of 5-year-old twin sons, an insane Oregon Ducks fanatic (follow him on Twitter @DavidKaufer), advocate for green/sustainability and autism issues, and connoisseur of Northwest microbrews. He and his wife Renee moved to Edmonds in 2005 to raise their family (and enjoy the gorgeous views).

  1. Enjoyed your column David. I agree that this issue will never go away. Last weekend I visited my sister and witnessed my 3-year old nephew addicted to the iPod Touch. What hit me was that my 16-year old son was similarly obsessed with our first iMac when he was 3 years old. Now my son is programming applications for the iPhone, so thinking technology at an early age has its benefits. Even though he’s 16 and has multiple “screens” now, we still encourage him to balance this with outside/physical activity. My other sister’s boys (4 & 6) don’t interact with technology that often, and she on the other hand, worries that they’ll be left behind. As parents we will always be concerned over these types of issues. I don’t have the answer; but balance always seems to make sense!

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