Hang up and talk

I am pretty firmly in the “Internet is awesome” camp. I’m not going to wax wistfully on the “good old days” and how “kids today” just aren’t as good as the kids they had when we were kids, those were some kids by golly! As near as I can tell, the good old days included nuclear bomb drills, water cannons applied enthusiastically to minorities, and the Ed Sullivan Show.

Based on the reaction to last week’s article, it seems like a few people agree with me (yay, hivemind!). If there is a consensus opinion, it’s that:

  1. Growing up watching TV didn’t seem to make us any dumber (unless it did, and we’re too dumb to notice it);
  2. iPads aren’t the obesity-carrying mind control devices we’d really like them to be;
  3. Yet;
  4. If something is bad, it’s the parent’s fault.

So why is it the parent’s fault? What am I at fault for? Why are we so convinced as a culture that our kids are being forever ruined by Technology? Aaah the guilt!

If only I had the new iSpinning Jenny Air Pro! I hear it’s twice as touch sensitive than the Spinning Jenny that came out 6 months ago!

It’s Complicated

I listened to an interview with Danah Boyd, who is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a fellow at the Berkman Center, and director of the Data and Society Institute. She wrote a book called “It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens”. She raised some good points:

  1. Teenagers today don’t have a lot of unstructured time: sports and activities dominate and require parents to at least passively participate
  2. Teenagers have always looked for ways to spend time with their friends without their parents looking over their shoulders
  3. The point of being a teenager is to do stupid embarrassing things and hopefully live long enough to be embarrassed
You tried to ask out the cutest girl in your grade? YOU?

In the interview Danah recounted a situation where she was at a high school football game and the teens were socializing, hanging out, and occasionally looking at their phones or taking pictures with them.

In the bleachers all of the parents were sitting there, heads bowed, staring at their phones.

It was a powerful image so the story stuck with me and I wanted to dig in a little more into some of the research around children’s exposure to media and technology.

Don’t Mess with Big Bird

There is a fantastic survey of the research from 2010 called Children, Wired: For Better and For Worse. To wit: the quality of the media consumed seems to have the biggest effect on learning outcomes. In one study, there was a “direct causal link” between increased literacy skills and Sesame Street, which is about as close to proof as you’re going to get in the soft sciences.

Unlike in Philosophy, which will argue proof doesn’t really exist, but you should probably give them tenure anyway to be on the safe side so they can keep looking for it.

Also interesting is the “social teaching” aspect: programs that show how to resolve social conflict may be even more important than learning anything. In short, educational TV is not an oxymoron.

It’s not just TV, either. Laprospcopic surgeons who play video games are better at their jobs than their non-gamer peers. Gamers who play first person shooters (like Call of Duty) do a better job at assessing situations and then making correct decisions.

So why the hysteria? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

You know how when you see a little kid talk back to their parents in a public space, and the parents don’t react the way you’d expect them to, and you judge them?

Oh don’t lie, we all do.

Especially his parents.
Especially his parents. I am totally judging his parents.

Maybe there’s a little voice inside all of us that’s judging us too.

After all, when they’re children they’re little mirrors and little sponges. They absorb everything, and they show us our best and worst qualities. What if that’s the reason we’re all so obsessed with how much junior is playing on the iPad?

Because it’s cutting into OUR iPad time?

What if it’s us who are being ruined by technology, and we’re taking it out on our kids?

B.F.F. (before Facebook Feed)

Do you remember when you first got on Facebook? Chances are, you were on Facebook All. The. Time.

It’s amazing– there’s everyone you know, and a few people you dimly remember. You can be funnier than you ever could be in the spur of the moment. You get to interact with people and get little “ahs!” every time someone notices you. The whole system is designed to keep you in place as much as possible so Facebook can rake in the ad bucks.

I’m not even going to get into *this* nonsense.

Are you still on Facebook all the time? Probably less than you were.

As adults I have a theory that many of us are still in the honeymoon phase with our gadgets. We take them to bed. We caress their screens in the dark while our partners sleep. We do this because we still can’t believe just how awesome our toys are. Even after thirty-plus years, at a fundamental level, it’s magic.

We remember when computers were big bulky things.

When you had to write letters.

When reading news meant holding a paper that had newsworthy items printed on it in a non-refreshing analog display.

When games beeped and booped.

Nothing was more fun than chasing down your friend’s unicorn and beating it with a club. NOTHING.

Siri, make me a sandwich

My kids?

They have never lived in a world where you had to wait until a certain time of the day to watch their favorite show. They can FaceTime their grandparents 600 miles away whenever they feel like it (which is almost never- sorry Mom). They play immersive games online with their friends while Skyping. All of the knowledge of the world is a few keystrokes away.

And they can never imagine a world any other way.

Magic? No, it’s reality.

How many of us play with an electric light switch for hours at a time? Yet how wondrous would it seem to someone from even a few decades ago?

Or North Korea?

Our kids choose electronic entertainment because it’s the best form of entertainment the human race has ever invented. Like all children, their choices are influenced by the needs of their stage of development.

Young children are first defined by “I do it!”. They’ve just realized there is an “I”, now they want to find out everything that “I” can do. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s the potty or Angry Birds, they want to know if “I” can do it.

As they get older “I” becomes “we”. Our children seek out friends, becoming more and more reliant on others to provide a lens through which they can view themselves. They start to look at the world and form opinions, sometimes radically different from their parents, and seek out self-expression.

We know this, because we did it.

To a child today, these so called “digital natives”, the world is seamless. There is no offline and online to them, because it’s all online. There’s just “here” and “there”.

Hang up? What does that even mean?

I live in a good neighborhood, on a good street, where we know every single person and there are plenty of other kids around that are the same ages as my kids. We can bike, we can scooter, we can play in the sandbox. And we do. Sometimes, an entire hour will pass and I’m not precisely certain where my children are. They’re walking the dog, somewhere. Or maybe in a neighbor’s backyard and I can’t hear them. This is amazing and awesome.

Maybe I live in an apartment. Maybe I work all day and it’s safer for my kids to be inside. Maybe I’m terrified of letting go and believe that if my child gets out of my sight for more than a minute the sexual predators will swoop in from out of the shadows and take my baby away to some horrible place that exists only in my mind. It hurts and it’s scary and I have to protect protect protect.

That’s not enough.

If I want my children to chose differently, to chose better than I have, I need to show them the way. I need to buy that bike I’ve procrastinated on buying so I can show them how to get to the library. I need to not Facebook every precious moment I spend with them.

I must show them the value of the “here”.

That’s real magic.


16 thoughts on “Hang up and talk

  1. As a former technophobe, i can relate to some fears; technology making humanity softer, lazier, more isolated. Eight years ago, I got my first computer since the Commodore 64 I had in the 80s, and cautiously got connected via AOL. Now I have tablets and smartphones, too. As a person who is neither soft nor lazy by nature, I realize I was frightened for no good reason; I can accomplish SO much more than I ever could, thanks to marvelous, powerful, portable, affordable, technology (I can even blog again while always on the go)!

    …And then again, whenever I see too kids sitting together, side-by-side, texting each other…


    1. The funny thing is, they’re texting each other because you (or some other adult) is watching them… that’s one of the points that danah boyd makes– kids (and especially teenagers) always want to have a “clubhouse” that’s essentially adult free. I had a tree house. My kids get to roam the neighborhood. Not all kids are lucky enough to have freedom of movement, so they gather virtually in ways that make it harder for their adults to watch them. It’s the same stupid things I used to do, just being carried out in a more modern way. I think that’s comforting.

      Thanks for reading!


    1. I’ve always wanted to be on a list! Besides the chore list. And the s*** list.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. I am constantly addressing my kids homework questions with “Look it up on the internet”. They have no clue what an encyclopedia is. (By the way, is Brittanica still printing those?) I am a middle aged college student. (Please hold your judgement. I am little hard headed and it took me this long to appreciate higher education). I can find hundreds of examples of solving Exponential Equations and Graphing Polynomial Expressions. The kids have it made!


    1. No judging here, I was on the 10 year plan myself. It truly is amazing to have the collective knowledge of the world at your fingertips.


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