Mr. Postman’s target was television. But it’s safe to assume he’d have nothing good to say about a land in which teenagers send, on average, 3,000 texts a month, and parents make YouTube videos of their two-year-old meeting the iPad like a first play date. After all, with a nod to Aldous Huxley, he was fretting about humans as Great Abbreviators when the world was still tweet-free. And while he later turned his scorn on the Internet, the device he initially believed would ruin kids forever – or at least make them stupid – couldn’t be carried around in their pockets. In a prescient description, offered during a speech in 1998, he compared technology to a red drop of dye spreading through a beaker of clear water. It’s more ecological than addictive. Parents, after all, aren’t buying iPads because they’re junkies; they buy them because, as Mr. Butterworth says, they believe their kids need them to thrive in the environment.
Mr. Postman would have us examine that belief – he worried about technology sneaking in without a proper debate about its role and impact, especially on children.
“The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder,” he told the Denver audience in his 1998 speech, “and that it’s capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”
Mobile media, for one thing, create another path to a world branded and owned by corporations, points out Daniel Thomas Cook, a sociologist at Duke University, and the author of The Commodification of Childhood. For instance, nine-year-old Richard Profit in Yellowknife describes using his iPad for homework (of course) but also to peruse YouTube for movie trailers. Sometimes, he says, his game apps prompt him to post his results on Facebook. “I think it’s pretty cool that my friends can see my score,” he says. (And Apple thinks it’s pretty cool that his friends might also want to buy the same game.) The problem for parents, Mr. Cook points out, is that early immersion in technology is hard to control. “How do you think outside the iPad, once you have it?”
The line between child-friendly and adults-only was already blurred by television, but it’s gone completely out of focus with smart phones and the rise of the “pass-back.” This term, used by researchers studying how to make educational apps that children actually want to play, refers to the act of handing a grown-up’s device to a kid in a restaurant or car, usually for a few minutes of peace and quiet. Following through on Mr. Postman’s apocalyptic vision, it’s that kind of carelessness that might eventually get you a 34-year-old son living in the basement.
Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, is more gentle: “It’s not like it’s toxic,” he says. It’s more like little kids could be doing better things, and at a certain point, with too much technology too soon, they might lose the ability to choose – spending an important window of development staring at a screen. And the brains of kids under 13 just aren’t ready for the social complications of Facebook, Dr. Rich warns. “We’re denying them a childhood,” he says, echoing Mr. Postman. “How many kids are going to remember that great angry bird game? But if they climb a tree with their friend, they’ll remember that. That’s what we’re trading off.”