Monday, June 24, 2013

What to Do if Your Kids Are Obsessed with Technology

I clicked on author Steve Almond's piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine fully expecting to roll my eyes at yet another alarmist screed about how electronic devices are destroying childhood. However, after reading (and re-reading) it, I came away mostly impressed. I think he made many salient points about the challenges of parenting in the touch-screen era, which I would like to explore some more.

Look in the Mirror

One of the most important influences on how children interact with technology is the example set by their parents. Many parents take the approach of "do as I say, not as I do," which almost never works. Here, Almond does a good job of self-examination:
[...] But even without a TV or smartphones, our household can feel dominated by computers, especially because I and my wife (also a writer) work at home. We stare into our screens for hours at a stretch, working and just as often distracting ourselves from work.

Our children not only pick up on this fraught dynamic; they re-enact it.
He also recognizes when he is using technology as an easy pacifier:
After all, we park the kiddos in front of SpongeBob because it’s convenient for us, not good for them. (“Quiet time,” we call it. Let’s please not dwell on how sad and perverse this phrase is.) We make this bargain every day, even though our kids are often restless and irritable afterward.
That he views this strategy as one of his "failings as a parent" is a bit harsh. Almost all parents do this at least some of the time. Unfortunately, what he does not discuss in detail is just what his relationship is like with his children. That is the critical piece. If he is having meaningful conversations or one-on-one play time with his children, or if he is helping to get them involved in a variety of activities, then he is probably not failing as a parent.

Set Limits, Maintain Balance

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following: "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." The AAP also recommends that children under age 2 not be exposed at all to television and other entertainment media. It's best to start implementing rules around technology use early on; waiting until a child becomes a teenager is way too late. Almond tries to set some appropriate limits for his children:
[...] We ostensibly limit Josie (age 6) and Judah (age 4) to 45 minutes of screen time per day. But they find ways to get more: hunkering down with the videos Josie takes on her camera, sweet-talking the grandparents and so on. The temptations have only multiplied as they move out into a world saturated by technology.

Consider an incident that has come to be known in my household as the Leapster Imbroglio. For those unfamiliar with the Leapster, it is a “learning game system” aimed at 4-to-9-year-olds. Josie has wanted one for more than a year. “My two best friends have a Leapster and I don’t,” she sobbed to her mother recently. “I feel like a loser!”
He is certainly right about just how much various devices have become a seemingly vital part of children's lives; it is unrealistic to think that any child can be immune from their allure. In my mind, an important task for parents is to help their children learn how to use technology without being consumed by it. Setting appropriate limits and having a plethora of other activities for the child to engage in helps this learning process. It sounds from this anecdote that despite his daughter's heart-wrenching words, she did not end up getting a Leapster. Perhaps she was able to learn a small lesson here, that her life will go on even if she does not have the same shiny thing as everyone else.

Be Aware of Family-of-Origin Issues

When it comes to parents' attitudes about raising their children, it's always interesting to see how some parents recreate a similar dynamic with their children as the one they had with their own parents. Others go to the opposite extreme: if their own parents were too harsh, then they might be too permissive with their own children. Thus, one of the most interesting paragraphs hints at the author's own relationship with his parents:
My brothers and I were so devoted to television as kids that we created an entire lexicon around it. The brother who turned on the TV, and thus controlled the channel being watched, was said to “emanate.” I didn’t even know what “emanate” meant. It just sounded like the right verb.

This was back in the ’70s. We were latchkey kids living on the brink of a brave new world. In a few short years, we’d hurtled from the miraculous calculator (turn it over to spell out “boobs”!) to arcades filled with strobing amusements. I was one of those guys who spent every spare quarter mastering Asteroids and Defender, who found in video games a reliable short-term cure for the loneliness and competitive anxiety that plagued me. [...]
Later, when Almond talks about seeing his children drawn to electronic games and cartoons, he wrote: "I’m really seeing myself as a kid — anxious, needy for love but willing to settle for electronic distraction to soothe my nerves or hold tedium at bay." I can't help but wonder how the approach his parents took to child-rearing might have influenced his anxiety and loneliness. I did find it curious that he wrote his daughter's "job is to make the same sometimes-impulsive decisions I made as a kid (and teenager and young adult). And my job is to let her learn her own lessons rather than imposing mine on her." However, his actions seem to indicate otherwise: he is much more active than his own parents were in setting appropriate limits around his children's technology use. There is nothing wrong with parents imparting lessons learned in their 20's to their own children, if those lessons are about not letting technology rule one's life.

Understanding the Purpose of Technology

Of course, not all uses of technology are equal. A child could be using an iPad to learn how to read, draw, or even program. Alternatively, a child could be playing mindless games nonstop. The distinction is crucial, so parents need to know how their children are spending their time on these devices. While Almond acknowledges that iPads may be good educational tools when used effectively by good educators, he raises the following concerns:
The reason people turn to screens hasn’t changed much over the years. They remain mirrors that reflect a species in retreat from the burdens of modern consciousness, from boredom and isolation and helplessness.

It’s natural for children to seek out a powerful tool to banish these feelings. But the only reliable antidote to such burdens, based on my own experience, is not immersion in brighter and mightier screens but the capacity to slow our minds and pay sustained attention to the world around us. This is how all of us — whether artists or scientists or kindergartners — find beauty and meaning in the unceasing rush of experience.
If a person mainly uses a screen device to banish unpleasant feelings, then that is indeed very unfortunate. I do agree with Almond's emphasis on the importance of children learning about the real physical world that surrounds them. I would add that it's important that they learn about their own inner world of thoughts and feelings as well, so that when they inevitably experience anxiety or sadness or boredom, they do not automatically seek to banish it with a screen of some sort.

I once tweeted:

If I could have a do-over, instead of "do nothing" I would say: "I wonder if all these children raised on touch-screens can keep themselves occupied without one?" Almond ends the essay by writing about how his daughter is able to sit for five minutes while waiting for a cardinal to visit their family's compost bin and his hope that she does not forget the wonders of the real world. I think there's reason to be optimistic, despite the very pessimistic title of the article: "My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, and It’s All My Fault." I'd like to say to Mr. Almond, it's not your fault. Most kids are obsessed with technology. If they were obsessed and you allowed them to spend all their time in front of a screen, then it's your fault.