116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last month, in an attempt to regain possession of my phone from my 7-year-old, I bought her a tablet. I downloaded her favorite educational apps and a few games, adjusted all of the settings so that she must request permission to access additional content and add contacts to call, and watched her immediately become transfixed with her new tech. Basic requests for typical life functions like “time to brush your teeth” or “let’s practice your spelling list” were responded to with the moans and groans I would expect from a 13-year-old, and every time I came around the corner her face was awash with the blue-white glow of the screen. Within a week, it became clear that we needed to set hard limits and use the tablet as an incentive and a road trip activity rather than a regular toy.
If age 7 seems early to introduce technology to a child, the sellers of devices created for kids would disagree. Amazon’s Fire kids tablet is marketed for use by 3- to 12-year-olds, and the Samsung Galaxy Kids Edition is “designed for little hands,” boasting over 10,000 hours of kid-friendly activities. If over a solid year of child-distracting content doesn’t entice you, there are a slew of websites that have created best-of lists categorizing toddler tablets by features and specs.
Studies released over a decade ago demonstrated that screen time negatively impacts both mental and physical well-being in kids. Facebook whistleblower and Iowa native Frances Haugen testified to Congress about the dangers of social media to the psyche of children just a few months ago, and this week Instagram released a bevy of new features designed to increase parental controls, decrease unsolicited interaction between adults and kids, and allow users to self-restrict time spent on the app. With what we know about screen addiction and kids, tech giants encouraging self-regulation rings hollow as a solution to very real negative outcomes resulting from their products. (Especially as they continue to design programs that mine data more and more efficiently to draw the user into the app over and over again, and for longer and longer periods of time).
While there are absolutely drawbacks to unfettered access, kids without tech may be losing ground in a rapidly advancing world. Digital literacy is an expectation for many students by the first or second grade. The shift in educational settings to a tech-based learning experience was accelerated by the pandemic. Previously, a patchwork of school districts across the country had been moving to a one-to-one environment (a tech device for each child to take home and accomplish schoolwork, typically a tablet or laptop). However, in order to accommodate the massive and immediate switch to remote learning, suddenly take-home-tech became much more widely available. My own daughter’s first experience using a tablet came at age 5, when she spent the entirety of her kindergarten year interacting with her classmates and her teacher from the dining room table. This access was a privilege; for many, the availability of tech was either delayed or never came at all due to supply chain issues, unavailability of high-speed Wi-Fi, or a lack of funding.
Lawmakers are eyeing changes to existing protections including the tragically outdated 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in addition to drafting new legislation focused on the way tech firms market to children and discouraging tech monopolies. As a constituent, I am hopeful that the work will be both mindful and expedient enough to create meaningful change for the 1-to-1 generation. As a parent, I am also seriously considering shelving the tablet until she turns 30 …. Right after this next road trip.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com