My Family’s Relationship with iPads is a Dirty Secret

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A little girl playing on her iPad.Ok. I’ll admit it without shame. I let my children use iPads. They each have their own. And they’re three and five. And I’ll go one step further. They’ve had them for years. Years. And I’m going to get the baby one, too.

Even though I don’t think I should have to justify this dirty little secret, I will. We’re a traveling family. At a year and a half, we took our firstborn to Australia. With that flight staring us in the face, we caved. My husband and I gave up our hopeful outlook of having a TV and technology-free childhood for our daughter. We threw out all those studies we had read and emailed back and forth about how detrimental it can be for a child under two.

We threw the granola to the birds and opted for sanity. So, an iPad entered our daughter’s life. And we haven’t looked back. Then it happened again when baby number two entered. We decided to take a trip to Japan. We knew what we had to do. There were the peek-a-boo apps, the first-word apps, the “Look, it’s puppy’s nose” apps. And, with a one-and-a-half-year-old in tow, we survived the flight (and many subsequent road trips, doctor visits, swim lessons…you get the picture). 

My children have gained from using their iPads; my son loves doing dinosaur puzzles and now knows all their names and what they eat. My daughter has learned essential baking ingredients for making digital cakes and cookies. I am not ashamed of this knowledge they have gained from someone, something, beyond me. But, I do have a confession that I rarely share with anyone. 

There is something I loathe about these iPads: YouTube. More specifically, I have acquired a distaste for the videos of children and often grown adults playing with toys and the videos of families just going to the park or playing in the yard or packing for grandma’s house. And based on the number of hits each of these 15-minute gems has, I have the distinct feeling I am not alone in this.

I don’t know exactly how they found YouTube. I’ve been able to piece together that my son was angry with an app that plays dinosaur music videos, and he started pressing buttons in frustration. And one of those buttons was the Pandora’s Box of YouTube videos filled with sparkly-eyed families presenting their abundance of new toys and kumbaya-like adoration of one another. That’s how it began. Easy enough. (And yes, they collectively have their top four favorites, all of which I’ve vetted, but I won’t get specific).

Things in my house have changed since, and I’ve had to set strict rules about when, where, and how often the iPads get turned on, something I had never had to do before.

Some days, I “forget” to plug them in. Others, I “lose” them in the chaos of the house. I am bombarded with pleading children, crying children, angry children, desperate for one more look at these videos filled with children whose names and interests they now know better than their best real friends. I have forbidden the word “video” to be spoken. But still, my children’s love of these videos of children playing with board games or families going to the dentist has not wavered. The only thing that has is my patience and my sense of worth.

I try to reason with my children so they understand the real issue with these videos, even in the small snippets I let them enjoy each week. The problem is, these arguments are flawed, and even I know it. They go a bit like this:

  • There is no educational value in these videos. Except there is. My daughter comes at me with random facts now. Real facts. When I ask where she learned these new and interesting tidbits, she tells me from her videos (thankfully, this is said smug-free). She is desperate for us to plan a trip to Singapore now that she saw one of her favorite families recently exploring the city. Is it so bad for her to enjoy herself as she learns about other cultures, gymnastics, and the world? Honestly, it isn’t. But I still don’t like these videos.
  • Watching these videos stifles the imagination. I could go with this reason if it weren’t for now that my kids are playing with their toys in ways they never previously had. Every toy has a name and personality. Shopkins are busy getting out of storms and saving mermaids, while Lightning McQueen is getting some Hot Wheels dude out of the mud. I should be thanking these videos. Trust me, I want to be the mom who plays with her children and has these tremendous hour-long setups about Dentist Barbie setting out on a journey to visit Princess Tiana in her Malibu Beachhouse, but I’m not. I’m just not. I try, but I have dinner, dishes, and diapers, and it’s hard for me to get into it. (It is also made exponentially harder when the child I’m playing with already has in their head what I am supposed to be making the toys say or do, and they neglect to inform me. So, I mess up the storyline, and the whole playtime collapses into a pit of despair). 
  • These videos also stifle creativity. The storage on my daughter’s iPad would beg to differ. I now have video upon video of her trying to create videos. Yep. Those videos. She likes to set them up, find something to do that’s entertaining, delivers a pretty awesome snippet of her doings, talks to her “audience,” and begs me for her own YouTube channel. Sigh…so yes, she has been inspired to create.
  • This is just an escape from reality. It’s kid TV and as much an escape from reality as watching Paw Patrol or Princess Protection Program. It’s HGTV for kids. And I watch HGTV. Like all the time that I’m not with kids (and that’s only because they’d never allow it). HGTV is the soundtrack to my life. So should I blame my children for enjoying those moments when they can zone out and watch other people do what they wish they could do (like renovating a house a la Chip and Joanna Gaines)?

So if these perfectly reasonable excuses for not liking these YouTube videos are so unreasonable, what’s the problem? My problem with these videos is not how they impact my children but how I fear they impact their perception of me. They watch families that seem to spend every moment with each other, playing, laughing, and loving. They don’t understand that it isn’t that hard to reduce a family to 20 minutes of pure joy a day; I am certain we have those 20 minutes every day, too.

But the truth is, we also have mornings filled with rushing bodies, hours of cranky toddlers, occasional spilled meals, and lost shoes that we don’t have time to turn into a family-wide funfest. I worry that my children don’t understand nonreality of these videos.

Moms aren’t always giggling and planning fun outings. Moms yell. They get distracted. I yell. I get distracted. Sometimes I’m tired or angry. There are days when there’s so much to do I barely get out the door for pickup or drop off. Our life is not the life of YouTube videos. And that is the real reason I loathe these videos.

The confession I am compelled to downheartedly make is that when my children are submerged in these videos of families who never seem to fail, I am acutely aware of how I am failing them. And on the tough days of motherhood, I worry that they look at me, a mama who is not chasing them with a camera but making their dinners, not singing their names constantly but snuggling their bruises when needed, not giggling and plotting but asking and listening, and I only hope that those places in which I am failing them are not apparent to them, too.

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Jen is three-year resident of Westchester County and a five-year resident of Mommyhood. She enjoys writing, reading, coffee, wine, Disney World, and traveling with her husband, five year old daughter, two year old son, and 13 month old tiny son. She used to teach high school English in the city, but she decided to give up that stress for the stress of being a SAHM. Her least favorite things to do are laundry and dishes, but those seem to be the two things she puts the most energy into, hoping that one day, someone will create a Roomba-like device that will gather, sort, pretreat, wash, dry, fold, and put away the now clean clothes that her children shed like snakeskin around the house. Aside from dishes and laundry, Jen also occupies her free moments traveling and writing for her blog Three Kids and A Car where she provides travel tips and stories she’s collected since she first started bringing her daughter with her while she traveled the world.