"Wow," my 11-year-old son said, pointing out the window of the car. "That's a Porsche!"
I can barely tell a Porsche from a water buffalo. So I was somewhat bewildered to discover that my son was a car connoisseur. "How can you tell that's a Porsche from over here?" I asked, somewhat testily.
"Oh," he said. "I watch 'Top Gear' all the time."
The television. It had educated him.
TV and the iPhone and the iPad and all the myriad screens that flicker and glow and burrow into our unresisting frontal lobes — these things aren't supposed to edify children. Or at least, there have always been somber voices insisting that those flat, moving images will dumb kids down rather than smarten them up.
Newton Minow famously looked upon television back in the 1960s and proclaimed it a "vast wasteland" that could destroy the brains of the young and impressionable. More recently, in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines recommending no screen time at all for children under the age of 2.
Of course, many parents, educators and experts are leery of too much screen time after that, as well. They worry that screens shorten attention spans, and that if we expose our kids to them, we'll breed a generation of monsters.
My son is now about as sweet a Porsche-identifying tween as you could possibly wish for, but back before he could walk he was a colicky, stubborn, cranky nightmare. If my wife and I could shut him up, via any means, we did so, whether that meant stuffing Cheerios into him or sticking him in front of a "Thomas the Tank Engine" video, AAP guidelines or no AAP guidelines. AAP members were not showing up at our door to babysit; therefore, they lost their vote.
I did feel some guilt about all that Thomas, but now the AAP has absolved me. It has issued new guidelines that very reasonably point out that "media is just another environment." The guidelines suggest paying attention to what your kids watch without panicking about it. Don't let them watch so much YouTube that they never interact with you, and think twice about showing your toddler that "Friday the 13th" marathon. But an hour of Angry Birds on the phone isn't going to hurt anyone.
On the contrary, screens can be an amazing resource for kids of whatever age, just as they are for adults. Although the AAP says that most games for toddlers don't have much educational value, that doesn't mean they're worthless — unless you think there's no worth in a happy baby giggling at flashing lights. An entertained, happy child is a good thing, even if he's not being turned into an Einstein-level genius. Speaking from personal experience: better playing Angry Birds than eating dust mites. (Granted, those activities aren't always mutually exclusive.)
And once kids get a little older, screens really can become a valuable educational tool. My wife has been gleefully watching John Oliver with our son; the boy is now up to date on all sorts of issues, from immigration to standardized testing. He's also startlingly tuned into pop culture; he always knows what films are coming out well before I do. That may seem like a useless, frivolous skill, but as a pop culture critic, knowing what movies are coming out is supposed to be my job. Not that I want him to follow in my keystrokes, but if he does, all this Web surfing will count as career training.
New media technologies are always greeted with suspicion. Once upon a time, cultural arbiters were worried that novels would corrupt young women. "Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world," Jane Austen declared, "no species of composition has been so much decried." Eventually, novels were accepted as an ennobling pastime, and now the complaint is that kids aren't reading enough of them and are instead reading Twitter.
Information delivery systems are just information delivery systems; there's nothing sacred about one, or anything satanic about another. People worry that screens will prevent kids from learning. But I'm sure I'm not the only parent whose kid has looked up from his screen, glanced out the window and told me something about the world that I didn't know.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."