Free Tablet Not A Welcome Gift


Q.  At the start of the year, our children’s school handed out iPads to every fifth grade student. Consequently, though we had successfully implemented a strict family policy about when and how our daughter was able to interact with the virtual world, she now has free access to the Internet thanks to the school’s decision to equip her with a device we do not believe should be in her possession.


We are angry and feel the school has betrayed our confidence and usurped our right to regulate our daughter’s exposure to media. Prior to this year she only used the computer for homework assignments and occasionally to play computer games that we allowed her to play. (At our home, playing on the computer is a “rainy day” activity.) Since getting the iPad from school, we are in nearly constant conflict with our daughter about the time she spends watching videos, texting with friends, and using social sites (the school actually required all the children to have at least one social media account so that they could “practice” using social media responsibly!) This is a child who used to spend all her free time playing outdoors, riding her bike, baking cookies, or drawing. Now we have to require these activities so that she spends less time online!


We know we’re not the only people facing this issue, because more and more schools are giving kids laptops and tablets. I’m not convinced there is an educational benefit to this practice, but at the moment, I just want to figure out how to protect my daughter from becoming addicted to media and shortchanging herself from a real childhood. Any suggestions?


A.  Thanks for giving me the opportunity to go on record as being strongly opposed to the practice of giving personal electronics to children as a way to “augment” their educations with technology. I share your skepticism that giving kids tablets or laptops will do anything other than provide a really convenient distraction to learning. In a world where the vast majority of children have smartphones long before they get to high school, I hardly think schools need to teach them how to use technology.


But as you point out, this practice is growing, and as the technology gets cheaper, supplying kids with devices will become the standard. And even schools that don’t provide kids a device for personal use give children access to media through computer labs and devices that are shared among students. So the issue of access to media is an important one for all parents.


Let’s begin by giving your child’s school the benefit of the doubt. There’s money available to schools for devices, and educators feel the pressure to incorporate technology into their teaching.  It’s likely that the folks at your daughter’s school believe that giving an iPad to every fifth grader somehow benefits the students, and their intention isn’t to corrupt your child’s innocence or usurp your authority, but to supplement her learning with a cool device she will want to use.


While you can’t get around the fact that the school has given your daughter an iPad, and therefore more access to the Internet than you prefer, you still can and should have a say about when and how she uses it to access the Internet. As with all aspects of your daughter’s education, what’s needed is clear communication with her teachers and the school’s administrators so your concerns are taken into consideration and your family’s needs are met.


It seems like a meeting with your daughter’s teacher is in order. The first step is to verify the school’s policies about using the iPad to be certain your daughter is being straight with you. Don’t be shocked to discover that she’s perhaps overstating what is “required” by the school—she’d be a typically bright kid if she’s figured out that the authority of the school is her ticket to getting around your rules. (If you strongly disagree with the way the school is incorporating media into your child’s life, by all means speak up and express your concerns in a constructive yet firm manner.)


Once you’ve determined exactly how the school expects the device to be used, you should revise your family media policy to reflect that there’s an iPad in the house. It goes without saying that you should know the password to the device and to every app that is on it, especially any social media apps that your daughter is using (I vote to delete them all, by the way! A fifth grader is too young for social media!)


Create a new rule about using the device at home only for homework or as a “rainy day” activity, just as you’ve always done. Designate a spot in the kitchen where the iPad is stored when not in use—don’t assume it’s always making its way back to your daughter’s backpack, but instead, put it where you can see it and assure that it’s not being used.


Will your fifth grader resist when you reign in her access to media and her time on the iPad? Heck, yes! But this is why God made parents. If kids already knew what was good for them, they’d naturally eat veggies, study for tests, and get plenty of sleep. And they’d never hide under the covers texting a buddy until all hours of the night on an iPad provided to them by the school!


The good news is, once you’ve re-established your authority over the use of the tablet, your daughter will rediscover her love for bike rides, baking cookies, drawing, and playing outside. Soon enough, she’ll hardly notice that she’s not mindlessly watching YouTube cat videos.

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