I believe in technology and its power to transform lives. But wait, this isn't an ad for Intel processors. It's about a question: how much technology do you, as parents, allow your kids to be exposed to? And at what age? We bought an iPad when it was first released in 2009. Our son had just turned 1. He's almost 5 now, and he still loves it and plays on it regularly. Obviously, he doesn't have a mobile phone-yet. We also let him watch television, subject to certain timings and limits.
But I know, and have spoken to many parents who do not believe in using technology in parenting. No iPads, no television, nothing. For some parents this is easy because they don't have televisions at home. Every parenting style is different and I don't know about you, but I think that technology is a good thing for kids. But like anything else, it should be given to kids in moderation and under supervision.
A generation gap wider than ever before
My life as a kid was very, very different than that of my son today. My childhood was about cycling and playing cricket on the roads and in school grounds and going for picnics with friends. Both my parents worked full-time, and on Sundays we would go out for lunch. Almost all my photos as a kid are in black and white. I was a child of the pre-liberalised India, where television was black and white and consisted of only one and later, two channels. By the time I saw cable television, I was already in college. My dad bought me my first personal computer in the late 90s, just after I became a Chartered Accountant. I bought my first mobile phone at the age of 27 and entered the big bad world of social media only a few years ago.
Every photo of my son is in colour and shot on a digital camera. I upload his photos on Facebook where I am connected with all my friends, most of who live across the world. On Twitter, back in 2008, I had asked people for suggestions for his name. My son takes a mobile phone, the Internet, an iPod, an iPad and many other gadgets for granted. He used them and other gadgets and toys even before he turned 5. He has grown up with them like I grew up with the radio, cassette players and a rotary dialing telephone. There is a profound difference in how my son experiences the world and relates to people today and how I did it when I was his age. They call it the classic generation gap, but I think the gap between me and my son is going to be far wider than the one between my father and me.
Technology as a filler for time
As parents who juggle jobs with families, we will always be short of time for our kids. Weekends are great, but parenting isn't a weekend activity. It is a full-time job. Technology helps to fill these gaps when we can't spend time with our kids-either because of our jobs or because we're just too tired. Yes, parenting is a tough, time-consuming job. Ask any full-time mother who is constantly running around to pick up and drop her child from school and the myriad classes that a child today attends.
So, is it ok to let your kid play with the iPad when you are tired? Or watch television? There are no right and wrong answers here. If you still have the energy to play with him after a tough, long day of being a mother, that's great. But let no one judge you if you take time off and let your kid see his favourite series on television, or play Angry Birds on the iPad. Daddies always have the easier job. More often than not, we fight with our kids to play the same games on the iPad. In all probability, we want to see Superman on television more than our kids.
Learning can be fun
Technology is great for teaching kids a whole lot of stuff. This is the single biggest way in which learning for this generation is fundamentally different for what it was for us, when we were kids. We all know how computers, the Internet, iPad and other devices can bring learning much closer to kids. I let my son type alphabets on MS PowerPoint on my computer. Apple has a separate section for kids on its iTunes Store. So about this particular aspect, there isn't much doubt. Kids love learning new things and they soak up stuff like sponges.
The flip side is obviously letting them remain on their gadgets for so long that they end up getting addicted to them. An iPad today is a PSP tomorrow and the list goes on and on. It's easy to spoil kids with gadgets. After all, we want to give our kids all the things we didn't have when we were their age. But be careful. Draw your lines carefully so that your child doesn't grow up with a disproportionate sense of entitlement. Take for example the decision to give your kid a cell phone. What-if any-is the 'right time'? My son is almost 5 and that's way too early. But I've spoken to parents who see no harm in giving phones to kids and also those refuse to give in to the stubborn demands made by their children. A dipstick benchmark is when they become teenagers-a few years before college. But how soon is too soon and how late is too late? That's for every individual set of parents to decide.
Remember your own childhood
Technology might be great for learning. But there is no real substitute for old-fashioned outdoor fun-the way our parents spent time with us. Whether it's playing with your kid, going out, cycling or just taking a simple walk on the beach, our kids need physical, tactile and sensory experiences. They've learnt to type on touch pads and keyboards even before they've learnt to write on a book. Heck, even we've forgotten the art of writing on paper. Noticed your handwriting lately? Kids need to touch, feel and experience every aspect of the world that exists outside of a mobile screen, a television screen and a computer screen. And yet, as parents we know the importance of technology in learning. The question, then, is: Where do you, as a parent, draw the line and tell your kid to get off a screen and get to the playground?