Disclaimer: This piece is my personal opinion and in no way aimed at imposing a right or wrong judgement on the choice of individual parents.
When my daughter was just over a year old, she came across my phone for the first time. I paused before taking it away and waited to see what she would do with it. After turning it over a couple of times, she began to try and open it like a book and when she couldn’t, she handed it back to me with the words ‘no open’. Later that day I posted the event on Facebook and almost immediately received a response from a friend who said: “Lol, my baby tries to swipe his books!”
This may seem like a cute baby-story, but the implication on the kind of children we are raising and the amount of dependency the next generation will have on technology is scary. When I made up my mind to raise a no-tech child, it was a decision-based in part on rebellion. I grew up during the years when new-age technology was just emerging and embraced every new platform that appeared. My personal battle with social media and all things ‘online’ had convinced me that I did not want my children to go through the same struggle. This, coupled with my fond memories of a no-tech childhood, made the decision seem like it was based on personal bias.
However, with every passing day and the revelation of some new effect that technology has on children, I am more and more convinced that this has been the best decision – if the most challenging – of my life. It hasn’t been easy and looks like it’s only going to get more difficult as she gets older, but others who have been doing it for longer and have children that have already reached adulthood strongly support the cause.
Parenting these days is complicated enough, especially for Muslims. We live in a world where we have to be aware, on guard and constantly assessing our words and actions. The need to keep up and be on a par with the rest of the world is a valid concern. It may be for this reason that so many of us introduce our children to screens almost from birth: because we don’t want them to be left behind or lose out in life. It is worthwhile though to consider the case against a tech-filled childhood and assess whether it is doing our kids more harm than good.
For example, we might find it amusing when our toddlers know how to turn on our phones (‘look! She can get past the password!’) Or take pride when they know what apps to open or how to play their favourite YouTube video (‘He knows it better than I do!’). Most of us take this as a sign of higher intelligence. It’s actually quite the opposite.
By nature, children need to discover things on their own in order to learn. This is how they gather the life skills they require as adults. They have to move, to touch, to interact, to explore, to make mistakes and to be completely absorbed in their play. Screen time, on the other hand, has been linked to shorter attention spans. Gadgets are intuitive and designed to be easy to use (think about how long it took you to learn how to use your iPhone or Google).
Screen (TV, tablets, phones) viewing feeds the desire to be ‘entertained’ rather than encouraging discovery and exploration in a child. A child who is used to being fed information on a constant basis becomes a teen who needs this as a fix. Enter social media and online activity. A recent survey showed that the average person spends almost twice as much time on social media in a lifetime as he or she does eating and drinking! We live in a world where we think that unless our daily lives are documented in some way online they have no validity and therefore we haven’t lived.
The effects of social media on the so-called Millennials / Generation Y have been the subject of many studies. The concerns for their ability to have normal social interactions, their lack of empathy and the illusion of life that they live from behind a screen are cited in numerous reports. What this will mean for the world is something we have to wait to see. One thing is for sure, it all begins with what we habituate our children to from infancy.
One may argue that we can’t change the way things are going and it is better to let our children join the movement, make their own mistakes and learn their own life lessons. This is true to a certain extent, but does that mean we can’t make the choice to prepare them with the right skills? I don’t think so.
When I considered the pros and cons of technology for my daughter, it wasn’t just because I believed that allowing her to play with simple toys and encouraging her towards self-directed play would strengthen her social and emotional health and cultivate her creativity. It was also because I was afraid of the doors that would inevitably open for her if she was comfortable with technology. Thoughts of endless selfies, of watching inappropriate YouTube channels, of cyber bullying and having a perspective skewed by social media gave me sleepless nights.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)’s guidelines on screen-time for kids
0-18 months – no screen time (except for video chatting)
18 months to 2 yrs – mention that media can be educational beginning at 18 months.
2 – 5 yrs old – no more than 1 hour per day
5 yrs+ – no specific amount of screen time, but urge parents to place consistent limits.
Islam is about being hands-on. It’s about seeing God in His Creation, about finding Divine Joy in the simple things in life, about thinking of others and not yourself and most of all, about being free. Free of anything that would keep you attached to the material world. If you doubt that the greatest addiction we have is to technology, then try turning off your phone for a day or two. Even the thought of it would make most of us shudder. Yet, a couple of decades ago owning a mobile phone was a luxury of the elite. Not only did we live without Whatsapp, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, we didn’t even know we required such conveniences in life!
I chose this path for my children because I want them to know their Creator on more intimate terms. Because our Imams have encouraged working with ‘our hands’ – which I interpret as being in touch with the real world – in order to nurture humility, something that will be elusive to us as long as we are busy uploading our most recent photos and achievements online.
I want them to play with mud and building blocks and create worlds from their imagination rather than have noisy battery-powered toys that tell them what to imagine. Infant expert Magda Gerber has said, “Active toys make passive children; passive toys make active children”. I want to have active children who have enough absence of material and enough presence of mind to be able to do what is required of them as Muslims and human beings, rather than fulfilling their moral responsibility through likes and shares.
As I said earlier, it’s not easy. When your baby is crying, you have a dozen chores waiting and it’s tempting to pop a phone into their hands to keep them quiet, it will be frustrating. When all the other children around are staring blankly at screens or talking about the latest TV shows, it will be lonely. When your child is lost at school because they haven’t learnt how to use the latest software or websites, it will be scary.
If you are a technophile, you may be ready to come at this idea with guns blazing about how good technology is for children but give technology a break – for a day, a weekend or a whole week – and see if there’s a difference in your children. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.