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Smart Phones and Parenting

“Don’t bother Daddy while he’s reading the newspaper” is a cultural cliché with a certain truth to it. For some parents, a few minutes of quiet are a healthy break. For others, the excuses are more continual—they would avoid their kids entirely if they could. My grandfather was in that second category. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house as a child, and my grandfather was always kind and fun to be with—when I saw him. But my dominant memory is of standing in the door of his art studio and asking if I could see him—if I could come in, or he would come out—and being told, “no, Grandpa is making his art now. “ Grandpa was always making his art. He worked as an architect during the week, and weekends were for working on his abstract painting and sculpture. Recently I shared this memory with my father, and he looked startled and sad—his memories of his father were identical.

Adults ignoring kids is not a new phenomenon. These days they are less often hiding behind the newspaper and more often hiding behind their smartphone. It’s the same phenomenon, but worse, because the phone is always there. Grandpa did sometimes leave his workshop (like for meals), and the newspaper is not with you at all times. As Sherry Turkle observed in her book Alone Together, the phone is a constant temptation. It doesn’t cause adults to ignore kids. But if an adult is of a hide-in the-art-studio inclination, it aids and abets bad behavior.

On the other hand, there are some absolutely wonderful things about smart-phone-enabled parenting. When our kids (ages 8 and 10) ask questions, we look up answers. “Mom, which countries drive on the left side of the road?” “What was the biggest earthquake?” “How much sugar is in Sprite compared to fruit juice?” These are all in my recent browser history. We also look up word definitions. Recently they asked, what does “lavish” mean? How is it different from “extravagant”? Of course I know those words, but dictionary definitions make it much easier to explain. And in the process, I think about nuances I hadn’t focused on before—I learn as much from these conversations as they do. My kids and I also regularly ask both serious and silly questions of the Siri program. (Try asking the air velocity of a swallow.) If they develop an interest in artificial intelligence, you’ll know where it came from. When the story this blog is named for took place, I looked up what a bison sounds like when we got home. Today, I would play it at the table. This is not a distraction from a family meal—quite the opposite. We have lively conversations and information we look up on our phones makes it more interesting for everyone.

Danah boyd astutely points out that much of what we see families doing with technology is not new. There have always been parents who ignore their kids to varying degrees, and use media as an excuse. There have always been parents who excitedly look things up to discuss with their kids. But in both cases, phones make it much easier, and it ends up happening more often.

The challenge for the future is finding ways to enhance the upsides and minimize the down. This will predominantly involve people learning to be more mindful in their use. However, there’s an intriguing question about whether mobile technology designers can play any meaningful role in accentuating the positive.

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