There is little that gives me more fear than the ways in which the world will change to make being a decent, contributing, empathetic person more difficult. As a parent, it’s weird how your perspective changes – not only are you concerned for the planet, yourself, your loved ones, and their kids – you have a direct stake in the ways the world is changing under our feet, and you fear for the future of your offspring.
I am privileged beyond belief not to have to worry about my son in many ways: he is a smart, upper-middle-class white boy living in America. My challenge will come in ensuring he knows, acknowledges, and appreciates this – and uses this to better the world around him.
But one thing we all have to work through with kids of this generation – at least those who live in first world countries – is the role technology will play in their lives. I am an older part of the last generation to remember a world before the Internet as a mainstream tool. Someone who still vaguely remembers using a house phone. Someone who remembers the birth of social media, and the trajectory it took in replacing chatrooms, forums, and instant messengers. A world in which a selfie was a unique concept (and I have an old DeviantArt page with plenty of them, circa 2002 – they are considered antiquities now).
My child will not have the grounding I did. He will not be raised in a world where there is a stark difference between then and now. He will see little reason to learn how to physically write – much less learn cursive (although, I have to say, I never saw the point of cursive, either). He may not ever see a reason to learn how to drive. Those are just the facts. But the implications are that he will be far more connected to the outside world than I ever could have been, and at a frighteningly young age. He will no doubt encounter porn well before puberty. He will be begging for a cell phone at 8, or younger. He will be expected to participate in social media at what I would consider an obscenely young age – and he will be exposed to whatever his network chooses to put out there. I will have limited control over that. (Obviously, monitoring is vital and parental restrictions are a given, but kids can get around ANYTHING and that’s just a fact we have to face.)
He will witness the heinous nature of how people treat each other behind the anonymity of the Internet. He will encounter trolls, predators, bullies, and all kinds of racism, misogyny, prejudice, hatred, violence, drugs, sex, and disgust well before I’m even likely to be aware he’s seen anything. And his small, developing brain will be working all of that into his perspective on the world. This will be the case for all our children.
We cannot shut this down. We cannot raise our children in caves, allowing them out only to fetch water for the family and collect firewood for the hearth. There are times I briefly consider this idea, knowing that living as an Amish family may be the only way to protect my kid from becoming either an asshole or suicidal, or both. But needless to say, that’s pretty extreme. And frankly, not realistic. Even the Amish have Rumspringa.
I struggle often with how we will introduce technology into Cameron’s life. Especially since Brandon and I both work in tech–in advertising, no less–and know intimately how data is used to follow and target the unsuspecting. We can’t be hypocrites, attached to our cell phones and laptops and denying him the right to ever see a screen. But it is nonetheless our responsibility as parents to guide him in the direction we feel is appropriate for his age.
So with that said, I’ve put together a family manifesto for the use of technology in our lives. Maybe it’ll help you create your own for your family.
- Technology should be an aid – not a crutch. Is the technology bettering your life or hindering it? Are we watching a movie together or are we each zoning out and staring into the abyss of our own devices?
- Meal time is family time. No screens, ever, when we are eating together at the table. Including the parents.
- No TV before age 2. We are not perfect about this, but I would venture to say the amount of collective television programming Cam has watched in his 18 months totals about 12 hours. And about half of that was dedicated, “special treat” family time – The Princess Diaries one night and Elf at Christmas. He watched Finding Nemo on a plane trip and has seen a few episodes of Mr. Rogers. He has no idea what the characters are on t-shirts and is usually perfectly happy to entertain himself with his toys and books. It’s also been really refreshing to know that the things he’s learning aren’t coming from a screen – they are coming from books, interactions with other kids, time at his nanny share, from us, or from the world around him. We never have to wonder if he’s been exposed to something weird, because we control what he takes in. It’s not so much a control thing, though, as it is a dependence thing. We didn’t want our kid to be dependent on a screen for entertainment or babysitting. So he adapted to entertain himself without one. Has it been a huge pain in the ass to never (well, almost never) have the TV on when he’s around? Sure. But has it made our family dynamic a million times better than it would have been? You bet. And it’s made Brandon and me more productive, more voracious readers, and more interested in music. Plus, Cam appreciates a good podcast nowadays.
- No cell phone before 10. No smart phone before 12. I would like this to be 14 but realistically, I think I’m going to get beaten into submission. In my mind, there is no reason whatsoever that a pre-teen needs a smart phone. In an emergency, a cell phone is necessary because pay phones don’t exist anymore. But connecting to SnapChat? Bite me. There is zero reason for this. And Cam will be a master manipulator but despite what he’ll think at the time, I’m no dummy, either.
- Mom and Dad’s phones are for pictures and videos of family. I don’t feel right keeping Cam away from phone screens like they’re some sort of prized possession he’s not allowed to touch. It’s only going to make him more curious. But he’s also not going to watch YouTube or play Candy Crush on our phones. When he plays with my phone, it’s while he’s sitting with me – not in the car, not unsupervised. We Skype with family or we look at pictures and videos I’ve taken of him – that’s pretty much it. Maybe we’ll look up a picture of a tiger or truck (“CRUCK!!!”) here and there. But for all he needs to know for now, that’s all I do with my phone. And that’s totally fine. There are real books and games that offer much more exciting entertainment than blinking lights.
- Technology should be used to grow the imagination – not supplement it. A fire truck that goes “woo woo.” A learning table that reminds you of the colors you’re pressing. A little keyboard to play that sounds like a piano. Those things are helpful – they encourage retention and brain development. Watching a video of kids playing with a soccer ball, though, is not developing anything. It’s a boredom distraction. You know what’s also a boredom distraction that actually teaches something? Kicking a ball.
- Be the change you wish to see. This is a fundamental tenet we try to teach Cameron in multiple aspects of our lives. We encourage him to chat with our homeless neighbors, be kind to animals; we go to marches with him. We volunteer, we run phone banks for candidates we support. This must extend to our relationship with technology as well. This one is the hardest for me. I love TV. LOVE TV. It is my way of decompressing. But I can live without TV. And I can put my cell phone away. I make a huge effort to put my cell phone to the side when I’m with Cameron, or when we’re all out to eat. I don’t have the TV on around him, and I’m certainly not watching a screen he can’t see (although sometimes I do listen to podcasts :). In the car, we either listen to music together or we chat. Sometimes he has a book in the back. We don’t have tablets and he doesn’t have something for the car. Has it been a huge pain to give up TV during the daytime hours? Of course. But it’s forced me to find other things to do. And there was a period of about a month when we couldn’t find our living room remote, and we all hardly noticed. It’s amazing what a small change can do once you commit to it.
I’m not a saint. I still watch a lot of TV – but it’s after Cam goes to bed. I still play Candy Crush and check Facebook a million times a day. But when it’s family time, it’s family time. We bond, we shop together, go to sporting events, go to the aquarium or on a scavenger hunt. We are a trio that genuinely enjoys being around each other and I hope to stay that way. I’m hoping that starting early and introducing screens slowly, in a way that means they don’t feel tethered to Cameron but that he feels comfortable around them. We want to create a healthy relationship with technology. We will screw up a million times. But this is our family’s plan for how we hope to try.