The Internet Won’t Transform Your Child Into a Genius

When it comes to learning, what kids really need won’t come from an app. But that doesn’t mean TV and iPads are sources of evil.
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Sometimes my son and I watch little-kid TV—not the live-action Nickelodeon comedies my 8-year-old has begun to favor, but cartoons, something for the younger crowd. I like that he still sometimes watches Tom & Jerry instead of Sam & Cat.

The ads, though, make me crazy. Not so much those for toys or cereal. At least they’re straightforward about their mission: They are selling a product. The ads that get to me are for something else; they peddle an idea, an aspiration, a hope—and oh, yeah, it’s also a product.

One ad opens on the image of a baby in a hospital bed. “Michael was born with a heart defect,” says the warmly maternal voiceover. “He spent the first eight months of his life in and out of hospitals and he didn’t really have an opportunity to learn like other kids do. He was so far behind that I was worried he’d never catch up.”

The solution? ABC Mouse, a subscription-based online service with preschool academic curriculum games. It costs around $8 a month. But it’s been worth it, says Michael’s mother: “His mind opened up. A few months later, he’s a completely different child. He’s getting his alphabet, his numbers, shapes, colors. Now I’m not worried for him at all. I know he’s not gonna struggle. Getting him on ABCmouse.com was the smartest thing I ever did for him.”

Um, okay.

I take no joy in mocking other mothers (I swear, I don’t!), but how does this woman think children learned about letters, numbers, shapes, and colors before the Internet? And does she really think these are the toughest or only concepts her little guy needs to grasp?

Another ABC Mouse “parent testimonial” features a dad who comes from the streets. You can tell he’s tough because he has a shaved head and talks like Macklemore. His story: “I led a life that I would not wish for my daughter. I grew up in a neighborhood where being tough was more important than being educated. I don’t want her to go to school and be the only kid that doesn’t know how to do the alphabet or how to count. But I don’t know how to teach her. She didn’t want to learn. I had to find something to help me help my daughter.”

For the record, has anyone ever met a little kid who didn’t want to learn the alphabet, or who found it really difficult (apart from kids with significant learning issues)? I mean, sing the song a few times and get a placemat. Boom. Done.

But that’s not good enough for reformed hard-core dad. He got her ABC Mouse and now, he says, “I don’t have to be a teacher. I just have to be her dad and that’s what I’m good at doing. I know that when she goes to school she is going to excel.”

I hate to break it to these parents, but entering kindergarten or even pre-K knowing your letters is not actually such a huge deal, and it doesn’t guarantee that your child will excel. I mean, looking at my kids and all the other kids I’ve ever met, the struggle when entering kindergarten isn’t knowing the alphabet, it’s knowing how to interact with other kids and the teacher, how to take turns and be part of a group, how to use your words instead of hitting or kicking when kid makes you mad.

None of those skills come loaded on anyone’s iPad.

For what it’s worth, I have no idea if the actual website/app is fun for kids or useful in any way. It probably doesn’t do any harm. But does it do any good? More to the point, does it do anything to justify plunking your kid down in front of an iPad when you and your little one could be reading a book, singing a song, going for a walk, running errands together, playing with other kids at the park, or just messing around with crayons and paper? Because all of these activities—free or nearly free, especially if you use your local library—will teach them all they need to know before they enter school.

The world of these ads is not one I want to raise my kids in. It’s a world where the pressure is on to make sure your child is ready to compete, to excel, and to have a head start (as one of the ads touts) over the other preschoolers. It’s a world in which there are no books, and yet parents are manically trying to teach their children to read at ever-earlier ages (what for?). And it’s a world completely confused about the importance of technology and business in the one area in which our children should be free of them: learning.

A third ABC Mouse ad features a child pushing back against a flash-card wielding mom; a former teacher, she says, “We tried everything! I have 400 apps, all of them are educational.” Oh, honey. You did not try everything.

I’m not a Luddite who thinks kids should never be exposed to technology (though I think the American Academy of Pediatrics is wise to suggest no screen time at all for babies up to 2, I have bent that rule to watch important sporting events and unimportant award-show red-carpet events with both of mine, when they were toddlers). I’m probably not even as low-tech a parent as Steve Jobs. Still, as NPR asked in a piece this week, it’s important to think not only of what screen time doesn’t provide, but what it takes away from: interpersonal play, real-world experiences, fresh air—all the stuff that used to be part of a normal childhood.

For me, it all boils down to a need to be clear about what our kids can and can’t get from screens. They cannot get a learning experience that even approaches what they’ll get just hanging out with you or another caring adult: reading books, drawing, playing outside, singing songs. All programs like ABC Mouse are is a souped-up version of flashcards. Which really are pointless.

What kids can—and should—get from the screens in their life is what we, their parents, get from them: entertainment, amusement, joy. We are living in an age of amazing artistry and storytelling on kids’ television and games. One half-hour episode of Yo Gabba Gabba is more fulfilling, fun, and curiosity-inspiring than hours of so-called “educational” programming. As they get older, they can watch the rich, allusive, lyrical Adventure Time, or the stylish, tongue-in-cheek Samurai Jack.

Or, just as their parents do, they can occasionally veg out and watch something dumb. Television as electronic babysitter gets a bad rap—but it works. My kid watching 30 minutes of Sam & Cat does him no harm (or, no more harm than my watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta).

The same can’t be said for a product that preys on parental anxiety, promotes a distorted view of what early childhood education means, and takes money out of their pockets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Tuttle is a book critic for the Boston Globe. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, NPR.com, and elsewhere. She lives in Decatur, Georgia. Follow her @katekilla
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