I am not a librarian catering to babies and small children. However, I am a mother of a young child and deeply supportive of / interested in / engaged with libraries, so when a mother-friend asked me a question yesterday about children, libraries, and technology, I just have not been able to get it out of my mind.
My friend goes regularly to a public library with her two children (one six months and one three years). The children’s section of this library recently got computers and placed them on very low tables in the area catering to the under 4 crowd (e.g. board books are nearby). Her older son now, understandably, zooms in and becomes entranced by the glowing screen of wonder. When they move to look at books, the inevitable bloops and beeps emanating from the row of enticing screens call to him and make it hard to focus on the books. She asked me if there was anything she could say or do to avoid this exposure to screens for her young kids. Her dread and discomfort were palpable as she explained that she heard the library was soon to start using iPads in the same section. She doesn’t want to stop going to this library as it’s got wonderful programming and is a convenient location, but she is committed to minimizing screen time.
My first reactions
Well, my gut reactions at the time were:
- Libraries are universally excited about implementing technologies of all sorts (I cited our 3-D printer and the makerspace movement).
- This library probably got some grant to do this and really feel it fits with their mission; and there’s probably not much she can do.
- That said, since she was nervous about approaching the librarians at that library (for fear they would label her ‘that outraged mom’ – I assured her, if the librarians are at all ethical and good at their jobs, even if they felt that way about her they’d never let on :-P), she could go to our local library which does not use technology to this extent in the children’s section and inquire about what is happening at the other library, why, and what kinds of questions or requests she could make (and how to make them) so that this point will resonate with them.
This suggestion felt highly unsatisfactory, and the issue started to get me annoyed as well. I did a little more thinking and a little digging and here are some things that are floating around in, as Hercule Poirot calls them, my little grey cells.
My thoughts 12 hours later
Public (and all) libraries are constantly thinking about relevance, new and exciting services, and how best to meet patron needs and desires (both known and unknown to the patrons). There is a lot of energy around reinventing library spaces with a primary focus on building and doing. These are common refrains when accused of being irrelevant in the face of “everything being online” (everything is not online, and libraries now do so much more than provide print books but those are other stories for others to tell). Lots of good is coming from this, especially with regard to offering technological workshops and gadgets, and of course free internet – all of which serve to minimize the digital divide; a deep, systemic, socioeconomic problem that public libraries have been a part of tackling.
All of this energy can be contextualized, too, against a backdrop of a long-standing philosophical conversation around providing what the people want (Fifty Shades of Grey! Romance novels! Cookbooks!) versus providing what’s good for them, what’s educationally, morally, and ethically valuable for the community (this book by Wayne Bivens-Tatum has a nice chapter talking about the history of public libraries).
Alright, but what if what people want is in some way bad for them?
The American Academy of Pediatrics says (my emphasis added),
Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.
They also say,
The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.
I just see such a conflict with these statements and all the energy and excitement around integrating technology into the children’s sections of libraries. A few brief searches of the Association for Library Service to Children’s blog posts suggests an overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm for exposing children of all ages to technology. I don’t think that’s inherently bad, but I feel very very unhappy about posts like this one which argues that only passive screen time is bad screen time and that rich experiences (like learning a programming language or creating something on an iPad) are great. I think learning programming languages and playing with iPads can be rich learning experiences, but there’s nuance too: how many hours a day is a child glued to their minecraft game? How old are they? Again, as the AAP states,
Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.
The ALSC does have some posts addressing this age question. Here’s one advocating for screen-free story time that I really like as it grounds its points in the AAP recommendation. I love how Kleckner closes:
The new screens and screen uses are in many ways exciting and even amazing. They are part of a very new and enormous cultural change in how technology is used today. Still, screen use is not appropriate and beneficial everywhere, for everyone, at every occasion. Like at the family dinner table or while driving, story times at the library are best without it.
Yes. Agree. 100%. And I’m surprised the ALSC doesn’t have any statements to this effect at all. What advisories I did find on their website related to helping young patrons avoid stumbling onto explicit and dangerous content online (and even this was written 15 years ago at this point). Real missed opportunity in my opinion.
There is a sense that if children don’t get on the tech bandwagon, they’ll be at a disadvantage. And again, that digital divide across jarringly unequal socioeconomic lines is real. But, where does this leave us? Are the children’s sections of public libraries talking about this? Are they and the AAP connecting? Are parents just clamoring for tablets and other technologies and therefore libraries are simply providing services that are being asked for? What’s the ethically right thing to do in this case? Is this just an extension of whatever reasons a public library will stock Fifty Shades of Grey? Or is there something more here that should make us pause and think again about the technology we are offering to our youngest among us?
What say you, children’s library workers??