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Smart Phones and Parenting

April 1, 2014 1 comment

“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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Limiting Kids’ Screen Time: How Do You Explain Why?

August 25, 2013 1 comment

“Mom, you sure played a lot of Pokémon today,” said my 9-year-old son.

I looked at him.  I hung my head.  “You’re right,” I said.  But I was caught in a frustrating part, and the same characteristics that make me good at finding a bug in code (“I’m going to fix this if it kills me”) also sometimes make me stubborn about a video game (“They say you can catch a Riolu here, and I’ve tried 100 times… so where’s my Riolu?”)

I should back up a bit.  The previous weekend, it rained all weekend. Again. (Atlanta is on track to set a rainfall record this year.)  And in the middle of a weekend at home where our plans were rained out, our household “screen time” limit was chaffing on the kids.  We let them have at most 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon of screen time–any kind of screen.  On a rained-in weekend, my son was challenging why we had this rule.  In exasperation, he asked, “Show me the study that says it’s bad for you!  What study shows that?”

Oh, ouch.  He’s got a point.  I told him about Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together. I told him about the cool paper by Morgan Ames and Jofish Kaye about how parents of different social classes manage their children’s media use differently.  But honestly I couldn’t come up with a hard reference.  How could you do a careful study of that, I pointed out?  So I trotted out the music analogy.  Look: some parents think it’s wonderful if their kids practice a musical instrument five hours a day. Some parents want their kids to be concert musicians and focus on just that one thing.  We don’t. If you played your saxophone in all your free time, we’d say you should take a break and go play a video game!  A healthy life is balanced.

Ye standard “Life is Balance” speech was not especially convincing.  If I could’ve pulled out a careful study proving my point, he would’ve accepted it.  But I didn’t have one.  (Please send me references!)

And I swear I didn’t do it on purpose–the Pokémon thing. But this morning I turned to him and said, “So yesterday you pointed out that I played too much Pokémon. Why did that bother you?”  And he replied, “well I mean, Mom you were just sitting there all day. You didn’t do anything else.  You…”  He stopped and looked at me.  “Ooooh, wait….” He smiled and shook his head.  He understood.  The perfect pedagogical lesson–and totally accidental.

In response to this my younger son did a comic role reversal, and made me promise I would be more careful about my screen time, or they’d have to start timing me. I sheepishly agreed.

How do you manage your children’s screen time? How do you explain the rationale for your policy to your kids? Leave me a comment!

Kids & Internet Safety: Put the Computer in a Public Room

January 6, 2012 2 comments

Since I do research on kids and the Internet, folks often ask me about Internet safety for kids. My student Sarita Yardi is studying how parents cope, and finding that they are struggling. There aren’t simple rules.  Parents are legitimate gatekeepers for what sorts of things kids and teens are exposed to, and the Internet can often take the parent out of the loop.

The Internet has lots to offer kids, and you can’t just take it away. They need it for school, they’ll need it for their careers, and they need parental guidance to learn how to use it responsibly. Even the most involved parents can’t watch what their kids are doing every moment. You need to talk with your kids about responsible Internet use, and create a culture of accountability in the home.  Parenting Internet use is a microcosm of parenting in general, with the difficulty level turned to 11.  While there are no easy answers, there is one golden rule:

Put the computer in a public room in the house.

You have to learn to trust your kids–no doubt about it. You won’t always be there, and what matters is what happens when you’re not watching. But while their judgement is maturing, a little deterrence can go a long way. OK, you’re busy in the kitchen–but you just might walk through the family room and look over their shoulder. They shouldn’t be doing anything they wouldn’t want you to see.

Laptops are a terrible idea for kids. We will be getting our sons laptops as high-school graduation presents.  And in the meantime, our computer will remain in the dining room.  This doesn’t solve all problems–we did find a certain small boy using the computer once in the middle of the night. But he lost all computer use for two weeks for that escapade, and he won’t be making that mistake again.  Accountability is the first step towards independent responsibility. And visibility of behavior supports the growth of accountability and good judgement.

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