By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Like so many parents, I have an ambivalent relationship with digital technology. For myself, I think it’s wonderful: I love the clean, quiet, wizardry of my computer, and the instant access it gives me to everything from the latest brain research to the definition of the word “balneology” to my niece's photos of her twin boys. My cell phone is always nearby, keeping me closely connected to family and friends, and giving me, whenever I need it, information, music, and the audiobooks that save me during sleepless nights.
When it comes to technology and my kids, however, that's another story! I appreciate how agile they are with all its forms, the way their fingers fly over the keys as they effortlessly create a power point presentation, collaborate on a movie, or shoot text photos to friends. But since they’ve been small, I’ve tried to keep screens from taking over the household. Some of my rules are more effective than others; suffice it to say that my three teens consider me a Luddite and a control freak.
Your phone vs. your heart
But trying to keep screens at bay feels like a losing battle, and, now that they’re older and increasingly the masters of their own fates, I wonder exactly what I’m afraid of. My fears seem overwrought when I actually articulate them: I’m afraid that screens will turn my children’s brains to mush and replace real experiences with virtual ones.
I also worry that too many people now substitute digital contact for genuine human relationships. A recent New York Times article titled "Your phone vs. your heart" expresses precisely this concern. Psychologist and author Barbara L. Fredrickson warns that our growing obsession with technology may be damaging our capacity for human connection. Her research demonstrates the long-term positive effects of becoming more attuned to others, and points out that these effects are cumulative: the more experience you have relating to others, the greater your capacity for friendship and empathy. Conversely, if you have only weak or intermittent connections with other people, your ability to form meaningful relationships withers over time. Fredrickson admonishes parents to get off their cell phones – and to make sure their children do, too. She writes, “So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.”
It was a relief, then, to read Hanna Rosin’s recent article in The Atlantic, "The touch-screen generation." In exploring the effects of digital technology on child development, Rosin raises as many questions as answers. The fact is that we don’t know how digital technology is affecting our kids. Rosin writes, “...as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them.”
But instead of bewailing the prevalence of digital technology — as I am often guilty of doing, phone in one hand, laptop in the other — Rosin takes a less fevered approach, and tries to weigh both benefits and risks. She quotes writer Marc Prensky who argues: “We live in a screen age, and to say to a kid, ‘I’d love for you to look at a book but I hate it when you look at the screen’ is just bizarre. It reflects our own prejudices and comfort zone. It’s nothing but fear of change, of being left out.”
Prensky’s comment hit home, because of course I take for granted that reading time is superior to screen time – even though books can also be a form of escape and don’t necessarily promote human interaction. As Rosin points out: “Are books always, in every situation, inherently better than screens? My daughter, after all, often uses books as a way to avoid social interaction, while my son uses the Wii to bond with friends.”
The fact is, technology is now an indelible fixture in our lives and our children need to develop a healthy relationship with it. I’ve likely spent too much time trying to keep it at bay, instead of helping my kids understand and negotiate this ever-changing, sometimes hazardous, landscape. But my kids have refused to hang back with me, and instead are venturing out themselves, finding their way on their own.
What’s your relationship with technology? I’d love to hear your family’s story.Follow @CMMatthiessen