Raising ‘Digital Natives’

In a World Set on Cruise Control

By Tibby Plasse

Technology is limitless, so infinite we’re unconscious of it. Our connectedness is a near phenomenon, and our accessibility has changed the personality of our culture. We follow our idols online, liking their daily photos. We can order anything in the world and have it delivered to our doorstep. If we don’t know an answer, we ask Google without ever looking at a book or speaking to another person.

This universe of immediacy is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. The ability to catch an entire series of Downton Abbey or the NFL rundown in one sitting keeps us happy—we’re up all night, not engaging with anyone around us, and anxious to click to the next episode. It’s likely our iPads are on the coffee table or near the dinner plate, with email and fan pages running. This is classic behavior for an autonomous adult. But for a child (“digital natives,” as they are deemed), this behavior is magnified exponentially.

Sadly, the buzzword “technology” is too commonplace for people to take seriously, especially when it comes to parenting. It’s thrown into the laundry basket of items to watch out for like wheat and sugar. And while there’s no right or wrong way to parent (it comes from the gut for most of us), the truth is technology is a beast in our daily lives. It’s replacing academic and physical activities that promote healthy development. And it’s really easy to hand your iPhone to your kids so you can finish a conversation, uninterrupted.

When we learn to pacify ourselves with distraction and stimulation, we lose the capacity to manage frustration and develop life skills. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist specializing in child development, education, family relationships, and work-family balance, recently presented her studies and her book, The Big Disconnect, to a Jackson audience. Steiner-Adair began the conversation with facts from the epicenter of technology, Silicon Valley. “If you read about the folks in the [technology] industry, their children are most likely at a Waldorf School and don’t have access to iPads. … The tech industry understands how addictive technology is.”

Not too long ago a New York Times article on how Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent went viral on social media—yes, the founder of iPad culture refused to allow his own children access to the tablet.

So, if the founder of a billion-dollar industry isn’t allowing the video game Minecraft into his children’s lives, should you?

Steiner-Adair believes a written technology policy should be implemented into every household with children. This policy should then be signed and dated by both the parents and the children. “We need to raise children to be law-abiding citizens and to follow the rules,” she says. Steiner-Adair’s policy ultimately comes down to being an engaged parent. Responsible-use guidelines—for computer games, cellphones, computers, and iPads—teach that having access to any device is a privilege, and parents need to remember to enforce that. It’s not the technology’s fault for existing; it’s the job of a parent to bring balanced activity and development to their household.

Let’s face it—this policy is going to look different for every home, just as no one has the same schedule, food allergies, or favorite stuffed animal. Start by examining what’s happening at your dinner table. Are iPhones at the table? Is the TV on while everyone’s sitting down? What are you talking about: each other’s day, work, or video games? Writing down observations makes it impossible to avoid the truth. Beyond the dinner table, consider your time in transit to and from school. Are you listening to your kids recount their day, or are you taking a phone call? An appropriate acceptable-use policy can evolve from answering these questions, taking stock of your family culture, and modifying it if necessary.

Local screenwriter and novelist Jonah Lisa Dyer explains, “We rewrite our tech policy all the time.” Dyer relies on technology for her job, but she and her husband, Stephen, make very deliberate choices when it comes to their kids’ use. There’s no television in the main living area. Their kids have minimal iPad use during the week, and then on the weekend they’re allowed a significant amount of time to enjoy games like Minecraft.

Steiner-Adair notes that kids should be allowed time to make progress in computer games in order to gain from the experience. She says that playing online can be a constructive experience, especially if the child plays with other children. And she suggests being a “hummingbird parent,” a term coined by Grass Stain Guru blogger Michele Whitaker. Hummingbird parents zoom in periodically to take account of what’s happening and then flutter away, letting their kids be their independent selves. Steiner-Adair says to zoom in when they’re playing video games so you know how your children play. Are they are playing online in a group? How are they talking to each other, and what are they talking about? If it’s not constructive, be the parent that changes the game. If it’s a discussion on how to help each other get to the next level, flutter away. Hummingbird parenting helps you develop trust in your children and also gives them a chance to function on their own.

Dyer has experimented with her family’s tech-use policy by having her children earn their time, and she’s even created a set amount of time that can be taken away, too. Now she says her tech policy is “part managing and part what’s best for them. … I personally don’t want to be the screen police.” Dyer’s family uses the TimeLock App, which shuts the device off when the timer is up. And as much as she promotes a more natural playground for her children, Dyer also sees technology working its way into their playtime. Her kids act out video game characters in their outdoor mud kitchen. Be it Harry Potter or Star Wars, they write their own dialogue for their imagined version. “It’s popular culture,” Dyer says. “They do what we did.”

Jackson Hole-based regenerative medicine specialist Dr. Rathna Raju doesn’t need a policy. Her house is relatively low-tech. Her family only owns a television because it came with the house. Technology isn’t reinforced or rejected; it’s used when needed. Computer time for her ten-year-old daughter, Mira, consists of supplemental learning videos and exercises from the Khan Academy. This online academy partners with institutions like NASA, The Museum of Modern Art, The California Academy of Sciences, and MIT to bring students who are anywhere from the age of nine to eighty-nine years old a variety of different learning experiences. Raju explains that Khan offers a culture that her daughter just cannot get enough of. “The whole point is to think,” Raju says.

As a family, Raju, her husband, Jonathan, and Mira spend time outside as much as possible and pass their evenings playing board games. Mira attends Wilson Elementary and says most of the kids in her class have an iPod or iPad. But just because Mira doesn’t have technology access in her back pocket doesn’t mean she’s missing it. At night, she opts to read or help with dinner instead.

No one dictates your parenting style when it comes to technology, but there’s no harm in nudging you to think a little. Authentic play is critical for kids and denying it in lieu of instant satisfaction has long-term effects on digital natives. The Waldorf Research Institute reports on elementary-age children not knowing how to use scissors because the basic art has been replaced with iPad entertainment. The American Pediatric Association recommends that children two and younger should not have any type of screen time. Beware of Wi-Fi, bandwidths, electromagnetic radiation, and the list continues …

It’s hard work. It’s daily. But parenting is the one shot you’ve got.
Perhaps by moving all family technology into the “privilege” category, you’ll become more responsible yourself. Check your emails and return phone calls before you pick up your kids from school. Hopefully a little disconnect helps you plug in to what matters more.

The Scary Facts:

In the U.S., children ages eight to eighteen spend more time in front of a computer, television, or game screen than any other activity except sleeping.

A five-year-old’s brain absorbs ten times more radiation from iPads, computers, or cellphone screens than an adult’s.

Children with two or more hours of daily screen time are more likely to have increased psychological difficulties, including hyperactivity, emotional problems, and difficulties with peers.

The safety pamphlet that comes with an iPad recommends users hold it eight inches away from an adult body. This distance is far greater than most toddlers’ arm spans.

People who began using cellphones as teenagers, over a period of less than ten years, are four to five times more likely to develop certain types of cancers.

The leading form of communication for people under the age of twenty is text messaging.

Thoughtful Practices:

Limit technology use for both children and teens.

Use common sense. If your family has irresponsible habits, dial it back.

Create and enforce a family technology policy.

Use the iPad in “airplane mode,” especially with children.

Never have children use the iPad on their laps. Distance cuts down on radiation exposure.

For best practices, don’t give cellphones or tablets to infants or toddlers.