I get questions all the time about education–in the grocery store, at church, on a downtown sidewalk. Don’t you think kids have changed these days (said with a negative connotation)? No, I think they push whatever boundaries they’re given; maybe the boundaries have moved. Shouldn't schools teach home economics? Shouldn’t all school food be organic? Why don’t you have the air conditioning going (A question I got at a PSES Family Night)? It’s hot in here! You’d have better test scores if you had turned on the AC! (We don't have AC. If we did, I’d be the first to turn it on).
Some of the most oft-asked questions are about technology–and, this is a hard thing to deal with as parents. We’re in a world that is becoming ever more complex and reliant on technology. What’s helpful? What’s not? When should my child have a cell phone? How much screen time is too much? How do teachers use technology? Is technology a bad influence in my child’s life? Do good parents equip their kids with a smartphone? Am I a bad parent if there is a TV in my kid’s room? Should I limit what my kid watches? If so, by what standard? Shouldn't I want my kid to have what the other kids have? Aren't they “behind” if they don’t have a smartphone?
My own question is: Is technology making us a less civil society?
When I think about technology and parenting I like to frame the questions differently. I am not after an end result that categorizes parents as “good” or “bad.” Instead, I think we should educate ourselves and ask “What are the influences in my child's life that are good? Helpful? Productive?” and “How can I be an ‘informed’ parent versus an ‘uniformed’ parent?”
The Times Have Changed
Kids once rushed to the DMV to get their driver’s license. It was the ticket to freedom. The freedom to go to your friend’s house. The freedom to gather at the football field and have the annual Turkey Bowl at Thanksgiving (Back when it snowed and being tackled didn’t hurt so much). The freedom to see your latest crush face-to-face. The freedom to throw the fishing pole in the truck and meander down rivers and high country streams and sense the wonder of catching a brook trout. The freedom to put an $800 stereo system in your $300 car (And, this is where we learned about poor financial decisions). For elementary kids, it was the bicycle that provided this freedom.
Kids aren't rushing there anymore. Freedom comes in a different form: Social media. Video games. The internet. They are free to “go” anywhere. Anywhere. Let’s let that sink in….ANYWHERE. And, they do. Kids are naturally curious. (Of course they’ll go to the darkest places--because they are curious). They’re free to “face-to face” on Zoom, Facetime, Skype. They can “visit” their friends anytime. And, the Turkey Bowl is now digital...whole teams can play with each other through the various platforms of the internet without ever leaving home or exerting themselves.
Is this bad? Not necessarily.
Is this good? You be the judge for your child.
“How can I be an ‘informed’ parent versus an ‘uniformed’ parent?”
The question I ask is not "Is this bad or good?” Technology is here. Rather, I reframe this to what we all might ask “What is my child’s boundary?” and “What am I OK with as a parent?” and “What is good for my child, productive for my child, healthy for my child?”
One way we can make informed decisions is to listen to experts and know the data. Educational psychologists don't believe they’re ready for all this. While kids begin to develop abstract (a move away from concrete) thinking in their early teens, they still lack the brain development of judgment until early adulthood. At the same time, the brain’s reward center is becoming well-developed making our kids vulnerable to desire more and more tech-based experiences. Our kids cannot fully weigh the consequences until their brain’s frontal cortex finishes forming. So, they need guidance and help from us. We sometimes get that job of saving them from their own choices. One of those choices is how much time to spend on tech. Tech use by teens has been estimated by one study to be 53 hours a week (outside the school setting). That’s like having a job with overtime!
So where do we start? Let's start with us…
"Good/bad" parents vs “Informed/Uninformed”
Parents have enough on their plate; they don’t need to be framed as “good” and “bad.” (And the baby didn’t come with a manual!). So, I prefer to think of us as either being informed or uninformed–and this changes every day as new things come our way. So we have to be proactive. Once informed, we can make the decisions that are best for our families.
So, as we become more informed parents, we can ask ourselves if there are boundaries our kids need to have. If so, what are they? Maybe it’s the rating system games come with from the makers. Hollywood puts one out for us on its movies (It’s astounding they do this since making money is one of the main reasons to put movies out). The industry provides these to us so that we can be informed and make decisions for our kids. Maybe it’s time limits for activities involving technology. Maybe it’s places where technology is used: TV’s only in the family room, personal devices only at the kitchen table, and so on. Maybe it’s considering what is age-appropriate.
I've noticed at this age kids are more into video games than they are social media. So, I focused on that to see what experts might say. An online search for “video game review for parents” brings up three sites that seem to be very helpful. Here were a couple that came up:
I took a look at Common Sense Media and doing a search for a popular game I hear kids Kinder through 4th grade speaking about, I found this:
These screenshots show a lot of information with a simple search. I encourage you to search out what your kids might want to engage in. See if it’s right for them. Think about how it might influence them. There were also user reviews on this site that were informative from a kid’s perspective. At a glance, a parent can get ratings, description, and a better understanding of what our kids are interacting with.
When it comes to influence, we simply are. We are influenced by that with which we surround ourselves. I saw the movie Jaws as a four year old; I still don't like to swim in the ocean. The movie made too much of an impression on me. In Pagosa, people turn into old west characters around July 4th as we celebrate, watch the parade, and attend the Red Ryder Roundup rodeo in our western attire we dust off for the occasion; we’re influenced by a celebration in a traditional ranch community. Musicians, such as myself, can name their musical influences. I can be influenced by a great book, a good lecture, or a powerful article. A friend's weight loss can cause me to think about my own health journey. There is no doubt--things and people influence our lives. I encourage us to ask ourselves: What are our kids' influences? Are they healthy and productive?
I recognized the need for my child to get a good sleep. That led to the action: Phones off and on my bedside table at 7 PM. They didn’t like it. But, it was for them. My fatherly instinct informed me that I should protect them from their own choices of staying up texting, reaching for a phone at every notification. I set time limits on gaming and traded gaming time for chore time. Those are a couple things I did. Every family is different; what might you need to establish in yours?
Now, back to my own question: Is technology making us a less civil society?
Are we hurting? Are we lacking engagement with one another? How long has it been since we laughed with a group of people we love to be with--in the here and now--not digitally? Social media has separated and connected us. We are physically-distanced and COVID has only made it worse. I believe a healthy use of tech as a tool has its place. I believe further that a healthy social life, with positive influences, is what is needed more than ever.
What are the costs of negative technological influence? I believe the costs are many:
(1) Focus. An intense focus. Immersing in a great book with an epic story may be going by the wayside as we train our minds to read thirty second, or less, messages on social media. If it’s not a meme do we spend time on it?
(2) Fear. Fear I’m missing out. Fear something great is happening if I’m not consistently checking my phone for notifications--even as a teen at 2 AM. Fear of committing to something fun because maybe something more fun will come along--if I just check my phone enough. Perhaps the answer is living in the now. Perhaps we should make the best of what we are currently doing.
(3) Missing out. Missing out on life. On hobbies. On learning a new skill. On testing the waters. On taking risks. On the joy of accomplishment--finishing a book, a painting, a letter. Learning to ride a horse. Teaching a pet a new trick. Failing--then, trying again. Being in the choir. Trying a sport. Hiking. Sensing. Feeling. Knowing.
(4) Vandalism/violence/delinquency/self-harm. There are too many challenges on social media that our kids aren’t quite navigating. Tearing up a bathroom stall in their local school. Ripping sinks off the wall. Eating Tide-pods. Digital bullying. We have to help them understand these are poor and harmful choices as they navigate something that I didn’t have to face as a child.
As I return to my question; I do believe technology is driving us toward a less civil society. Less civil discourse. Less civil interactions. A need for instant answers and instant gratification. And, as a principal I am concerned about the long-term effects of children (as young as kindergartners) engaging in too much technology, or tech that is not yet age appropriate.
Can we buffer this? If not us, who? Can we be the models that are needed?
I believe we can.