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Why Some Kids Need to Use Their iPad During Church, and Why That Is OK

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I was a pastor’s wife for 13 years. I am well acquainted with the unspoken rules about what you can or cannot do at church. I know what people considered to be offensive or disrespectful — like how many parishioners look down on parents who let their kids use an iPad during a church service; the looks of disapproval come across incredibly judgmental.

Kids and iPads have gotten a bad reputation: Kids spend too much time using technology devices! Kids don’t know how to pay attention to anything that is not on a screen! Parents are irresponsible for not setting a time limit on iPads! Kids need to learn how to be respectful and look up from a screen! 

I personally believe technology dependance is not just a kid problem, it is a societal problem, especially since the emergence of social media. Sure, sometimes I feel my kids spend too much time with their devices, but so do I and so does my husband. So we lead by example. And chances are, this is not what is happening at church when you see that kid with an iPad.

The kid using an iPad at church may need it to cope because of sensory overload. That child may have a disability. That child may have anxiety in public places. And remember, just because you cannot see their disability doesn’t mean it is not their reality.

I have worked as a disability ministry consultant for several years, and I can tell you church is an incredibly difficult place for children (and adults) who have sensory issues. These sensory issues affect the way someone receives information from their senses. As an example, the hum of an overhead light in the church lobby might not be noticeable to most people, but for a child with auditory processing issues, the hum can sound can even feel like a drill in their ear.

Chances are, when you see a child with an iPad, they are using it to tune out excessive sensory input. Even children without a diagnosis can experience this.

Think about church: lights, music, noises, people talking or praying, conversations in the lobby, crowded spaces, smells (so many smells, from the building, to people, to perfumes, to candles, to other smells depending on the church). Now imagine a child whose brain processes the sensory input differently and all the senses become too overwhelming and they feel they are in danger or in pain (as this is how their brain perceives it).

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to attend church?

My youngest daughter has sensory processing disorder. She used to be unable to participate in any large gatherings. Even going to restaurants was a challenge. One day, as she struggled with sensory overload, she grabbed my phone in a panic and clicked on the Netflix app and selected an episode of “My Little Pony.” As she focused her attention on the show, the tension melted away, and for the first time, she was able to sit through a meal at a restaurant. Her attention on the show gave her the ability to tune out other sensory input.

The kid using an iPad at church might be using it to make it through an experience that would otherwise be painful or threatening to them due to their sensory issues.

The kid using an iPad at church is not being disrespectful; his parents are not being irresponsible  or “bad parents.” That family is doing whatever they have to do so they make it to church.

Here is something to keep in mind: we know that 16 percent of children have a disability — that is one in about every six children. Does your church accurately represent this? Chances are, it does not, which tells us many (if not most) kids with disabilities are not attending church. It also means their parents and siblings are not attending either. I hope if seeing a child using an iPad bothers you, the fact that these families are missing in our churches bothers you even more. Church is supposed to be a place where everyone belongs. Sadly, many people with disabilities see church as a hostile and harmful environment, and they experience this even as children.

Remember, if church is important to you, you should recognize it is also important for a family who has to work extra hard to provide supports for their child so they can attend. — especially when they know they will be judged. Also, they have every right to be there. Their children have every right to be there with the supports necessary so they can make it through a service. You never know, the kid using an iPad might be listening to the sermon a lot more closely than you give them credit for.

Getty image by SolisImages

Originally published: March 29, 2018
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