Thursday, March 24, 2016

Is there anything wrong with a toddler playing on a phone for a long flight? Maybe.

On a flight home recently, I sat next to a mom and her toddler. I suppose he was not yet two, since he was sitting on her knee for the two-hour flight, I gave them my window seat and the little one happily looked out the window for take-off, sucking assiduously on his soother, pointing and grunting. (I’m not sure if he couldn’t yet talk or if his soother made it impossible; he didn’t take it out at all.) I pulled out the book I’m reading – Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. The mother gave me an ironic smile when she saw my book and gave her phone to the boy.

The toddler spent the rest of the time engaged with the tiny screen, expertly navigating the interface to find his games, opening the photo app and scrolling through the pictures, playing a video, and listening to his mother’s commentary on his actions (that’s Jordan, there’s the birthday cake, you fed the penguin). He was quiet for the whole trip (I was grateful), fussing only at the end when his mother tried to take the phone to text her husband.

So mission accomplished, right? The toddler is quiet and happy. His mom didn’t abandon him with the device, but continually interacted with him. It isn’t much different from reading to him, singing with him and playing games. Is it?  

But it worries me, nonetheless. He seemed not simply engaged, but hyper-engaged. Every moment was filled with flashing images and constantly changing entertainment. I was imagining what it would have been like without the device. Harder for the mother – and me – and the little one, too. Perhaps he would have had some favourite toy and played imaginary games with it – driving a car around the window and on the table tray, building a magazine tower for the toy to climb, engaging with the woman in the next seat to find out what games she knew. Perhaps he would have fallen asleep as most of the rest of the passengers had – it was a late afternoon flight – and rested for a little while. Certainly the digital games he played were educational (for example, in one numbers flashed up to show how many bits of food he’d fed to the animals and he had to choose food that matched the their colours), but it seemed, now that I think of it, almost robotic: the machine was doing all the thinking, and the boy was being led along. I suppose that’s what worried me. His mother’s engagement was passive, too. And mine.

I’m worried that we are relinquishing some important responsibility – Sherry Turkle claims it is the responsibilities of mentorship and she may be right. By the time we figure it out, though, it will be too late for a whole generation of children.