Library Needs to Model Technology Restraint

Published May 13, 2014

A few months ago, during our weekly visit to Fort Wayne’s well-curated downtown library, my two toddlers repeatedly tuned out books to stare, open-mouthed, at video screens. Despite earnest attempts to get our kids into one of their favorite activities—snuggling together to read a book—my husband and I couldn’t compete with the new computers in the children’s area. Each time our little people refocused their attention on reading, some beep or boop would emanate from the screens, and they were distracted.

I don’t like to complain about a library that is the best of nearly a dozen I’ve lived near, in both rural and urban locales, and not all of their technology ventures seem destructive. (For one, check out the new 3-D printer, which offers myriad creative possibilities and the opportunity to get a jump-start into tomorrow’s economy.) So I hope our library friends will take this as constructive criticism: Please remove the computers that dot the children’s book area. 

These aren’t just the words of a local Luddite. Computers are obviously quite useful, and they are plentiful in other areas of the library. That’s fine. But research and common sense both indicate it’s better to emphasize print rather than screens for young children.

For one, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under age two spend no time in front of screens. Zero. After that, AAP recommends no more than one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, starting with very little for small children and gradually increasing as kids age. This is because computer use can short-circuit kids’ cognitive development. “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity,” AAP says. Teachers and researchers in the United Kingdom recently raised alarms after many three- and four-year-old children could not play with blocks or remember well because they had spent so much time looking at video screens.

The early years are often a child’s only opportunity to develop certain essential abilities such as fine-motor skills, plus a love of reading and relationships with those who read with them. One cannot converse with a computer, nor will it teach a child to love. Children need and deserve attention, conversation, and love from real human beings so they can learn to give the same to others. 

Good moms and dads refuse to let their kids eat candy nonstop because we know it will hurt them. Similarly, a child’s liking to look at a flashing screen does not mean he should have one. We hire librarians to exercise their judgment about what books to buy and activities to promote using the money we choose to give them. On behalf of the distractible children that enter their library, our librarians should remove this hindrance to early literacy.

Since librarians also respond to our demands, we citizens must also be responsible enough to think through the proper times and places for surfing Facebook and jabbing fingers restlessly at screens, both at home and around town. That requires the far more difficult task of curbing ourselves and our children when we want harmful or simply wasteful things.

Adults help children manage themselves until they can do so without help. Maturity includes learning to control inanimate objects such as computers, rather than behaving like my distractible toddlers and letting computers control us. Instead of reinforcing our culture’s technology addiction, our librarians should help us reduce it.

Joy Pullmann is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. She lives in Fort Wayne.