There are plenty of viewpoints and studies that speak for and against technology in the hands of children. I am not a scientist and I am not an expert on child development. My wife and I jokingly say that our parenting isn’t perfect, just different, and our kids will still need therapy, just for different reasons…
If there is one point I can make to you here is no matter which school of thought you subscribe to, you are not completely wrong (or right). There are great reasons to limit or rule out tech for children. It is OK to say no. You are not harming your children if you keep their screen time and device time at a minimum. It is even OK if you opt your child out of the technology program at your local school. It will make your life much harder, but it is OK. Follow your own compass on this. You, as the parent, do not need to worry or bend to peer pressure. You are the one responsible for your child and you are the one who will be held responsible by law if they mess up. Never forget that. Parenting is a hard job and is often inconvenient. Only you as a parent know and understand the special needs of your child. Only you know the family culture you are trying to foster in your household. No matter what you choose to do you will have critics and armchair quarterbacks that will want to second guess or micromanage you and your parenting. They mean well, most of the time, but it is not your job to make them happy. The world is a noisy place and once we learn to filter out most of that noise, be it the critics, or your extended family, or the media or whoever, parenting, or at least staying focused on the parenting task at hand, is easier. Sorry, I waxed philosophical there, it won’t happen again. (yes it will)
Back to the thought of the day.
The deluge of devices that your child is constantly offered. Due to the recent years of books, movies and interviews regarding Steve Jobs, his decision to severely limit his children’s’ access to electronics have become quite famous and is often touted in the media as the key reason to limit your own child’s access to things like an iPad. “If the man behind the iPad, the genius who made them available knew they would be so dangerous to children that he would ban them from his own household… ” I have heard that, or some version of it many times in the last few years. I have read numerous opinion pieces about the dangers of the rapid flashing screen, the instant gratification of the fast paced games, how Minecraft can turn your kids into glowing zombies, the list goes on. There are so many different things, that it would be very easy to decide to ban them from my house. (except that I am a tech guy and a ban of any tech from my house would last less time than it will take you to read this… ) However, I did not. I do not ban any devices. I do limit screen time, and I think it is for good reasons, however, I personally don’t “ban” anything. I do not believe that any one item, any group of items, any sector of the product is inherently bad. I do think many products are misused, abused and taken for granted to the point of danger, but to me, that is a failure in training, not access. Let me explain.
I do not feel that any one thing can make anyone do or feel anything. Physical items can only adjust the environment. They cannot change the mind or force a feeling. (drugs can, but only because the brain is a chemical machine and drugs are also chemicals which can make material changes to the machine, but that can be a different article for a different blog) In the realm of physical devices, it is my opinion that environmental conditions, real or virtual (on screen) can make it easier or harder for a person to be mad or sad, excited or lethargic, but the person’s decision to give in to those feelings is solely the choice of the person. Case and point. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it is very easy for you to swear, but you are not forced to, you choose to give in to that stimulus. This is a lesson that is often mentioned when talking with people who have been captive, people like POW’s or people kidnapped. Many times I have heard people from that group say something like ‘the only thing they couldn’t take away from us was our mind, our will or our feelings’. This is the same reason that a court can make you give a fingerprint, but not a password or PIN. Your mind and the things in it, including your feelings are the only things that are truly your own and fully only under your own control. (except for people with a debilitating mental condition, but like I said earlier, only you know your child and your household. I am not here to give advice regarding parenting with mental illness as that is something I have NO experience with and I am not pretentious enough to feel I should even be allowed an opinion on that subject.)
I feel that computer use is the very same. It is very easy for a person to be drawn to play a very fun and absorbing game too much, however, there is nothing in the tech that makes them do it. At any point, they can simply say “Xbox Off”, stand up and go to bed. It is easier and more fun to choose to stay online playing COD with your college friends, but you are not forced to. If you spend the time with your children, reassuring them of the proper way to act, reminding them of good computer etiquette, and setting a good example for them to follow (this one is critical), they will be well educated as to the proper handling of the tech and much less likely to abuse it. If you ban it from your house, they never are allowed to experience it and build good habits with it, they will then be forced to do that learning much later in life when learning is often harder, and mistakes are more costly. If you give your kids access to the Xbox when they are young, it become less magical, therefore less dangerous to them and by the time they get to college, they have already learned how to shut it off and walk away to study or sleep, instead of learning that lesson at college in a dorm with a new roommate who shows up with this magical new device that is awesome and full of wonder, an Xbox. Then they have to learn to use it responsibly in an environment that does not support good judgement, at a time and place where failing to do so can cost them thousands of dollars and possibly a career, instead of when they are young and the worst it can cause is a bad couple of days in the 4th grade, long before even the best schools look at academic performance.
I also feel that giving my kids access to all manner of devices at a young age helps them have less trouble with those devices later in life from a use standpoint. An example: My house is cluttered with old PC’s, old Mac’s, new PC’s, new Mac’s and a plethora of mobile devices of all types. My 10-year-old son has always been encouraged to use any of them, with supervision, for appropriate purposes. Our school is an Apple education pilot school and has been for a while. Children are issued iPads at 2nd grade and Macbook Air’s at 5th grade. My son’s personal PC is a Microsoft Surface Pro device. He can smoothly transition between OS X, iOS, and Windows 7 or 10 and never miss a beat. He is so acclimated to using multiple devices, he computes the way his multilingual friends talk. Smoothly transitioning between different OS’s without ever miss-clicking or being confused. I work with these machines every day and have for years, but because I didn’t learn to do it when I was young, it is a force of will for me to transition every time. I am constantly reminding myself which OS I am on and trying to actively remember what to do next. In a nutshell, because I didn’t learn it when I was young and my brain was a sponge, I am NOT multilingually fluent electronically.
Lastly, I feel that the positive creative impact of exposure to these devices and software vastly outweighs the negatives. My children and their friends solve complex programming problems every day and don’t even realize that they are doing it. My son has been building red stone devices in Minecraft for so long that when he logs into Scratch on his raspberry pi, the If-Then-That sequencing most of us have to actively learn is second nature. He is automatically building flow charts and diagramming circuits before he makes them, not because he has been schooled in it, or has been taught best practices, but because he learned a long time ago that materials are hard to get and if you don’t plan your creations properly before starting, you are going to waste piles of time gathering them again.
I have mentioned and will mention again, I advocate PROPER use and limiting screen time, (screen time isn’t bad, I just personally want my kids to have a more balanced lifestyle with time for everything and exposure to many different things and this isn’t easy to do if they are always only absorbed in a device.) Make no mistake, the only way to ensure PROPER use is to SHOW them proper use and I don’t mean instructional demonstrations, I mean show them. Live the way you want them to, and that goes for devices and screen time too. If you want your children to be responsible members of the digital age, show them that you are. Use your good words and your good manners. All the time, not just when you think they are looking. They will notice. We are a product of our environments and if you build a positive environment for your children electronically, they will learn to emulate it. Play the games they play and show them that you also can turn it off a the end without a fuss. Show them how to play responsibly by playing with them responsibly. As an added bonus, if you are playing too and there is some element that you don’t approve of, you will immediately see it and you will know of it. I will go much deeper into this idea in a future post. For now, just know that as a parent, they see you as the coolest person in the world, a superhuman hero, and they work hard to be just like you, so be responsible, be respectful of others and be appropriate, and they will follow your example, especially if you encourage them to do so.