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Learn, Baby, Learn

My sons are, for the first time, both in middle school at the same time. And because of that our household is the proud owner of yet another iPad.

The PTO in our town, funded by a separate nonprofit educational foundation, provides all sixth-, seventh- and eight-graders with iPads, used for homework assignments so my kids don’t have to lug their heavy textbooks home.

Forgive me if I find that cute, given the mile walk I had to my bus stop (uphill, both ways!). But what I have observed with my older son is that he is much more engaged with this homework when he is working on the tablet. And given the screen addiction of my younger son, I feel that this is now the norm, not the exception.

When we first found out two years ago that our son was getting his own iPad from school, we kind of freaked out. “How is this a good idea?” “He’s going to download all kinds of games and pretend he’s doing his homework.” “Now we have to police him 24/7.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to our distress — our son acted perfectly responsible. He used his iPad for his homework, was able to check his answers online (with his teacher’s permission), correct what he got wrong, and use teacher-assigned websites to supplement his assignments and have his questions asked.

What my wife and I didn’t understand is that technology is not a novelty to this generation. The iPad is just another tool, another book, not the endless entertainment machine that we would have considered it when we were young (“in the good old days”).

As a parent, when I consider the technology that is available to us now, and how ubiquitous it is, my first instinct is to consider it negatively. Why is that?

I think I figured it out. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, technology devices were almost entirely entertainment machines. The radio, the hi-fi, the TV, the video games were escapes from real life; they were distractions, and they were a bane to my parents. “Go outside, it’s beautiful out! You’re wasting your brain power staring at the TV!” It was the mantra of my childhood. I was getting dumber everyday because I was watching TV.

But if I was reading a book, that was perfectly fine. I guess the act of reading was akin to learning to my parents, but in reality I was reading Doonesbury anthologies, and “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy,” and Richard Hooker’s “M*A*S*H” series. It was not exactly high art. It was the latter-day equivalent of “Phineas and Ferb” or “Modern Family” episodes. It was dumb humor disguised as literature. But the only difference was I was reading rather than viewing, so no one gave me any grief.

Being in the technology business, I am hyper aware of what kind of content my sons consume. I was the one who introduced them to “The Simpsons” after all. I watch with them often. Does that make me a lazy parent?

My conclusion: decidedly no. My sons consume books, TV episodes, movies, just like I did. The only difference they have is access. The tablets, smartphones, DVRs, pay-per-view and all the other things we didn’t have when were children, in the end, only allows them to be more discerning in their consumption.

My sons don’t consume more content because they have access to more devices. They have so many choices — a endless amount really — and the games they play online are mostly strategy games, or word games or even math games. It’s education disguised as entertainment, but ultimately it’s sharpening their minds.

No wonder I can’t beat either of them in chess anymore.