On most days, my phone is the last thing I look at before bed and the first thing I reach for when I awake. If I’m having trouble falling asleep, I pop in my earbuds and drift off with it in my hand. I find it nearly impossible not to see something beautiful or cool and think, “I should Instagram this,” or to hear the beep of an email, Facebook, or Twitter update and not want to find out what’s going on. And yet the truth is, those alerts rarely tell me something urgent.
It’s hard to remember that though, right? The Internet is always moving, and we feel we need to keep up and participate. But at what cost? Our engagement with the present moment — looking at a sunset and marveling at life’s grandness unmitigated by a camera’s lens, or playing imaginatively with our children and really listening and communicating with them rather than keeping half-an-eye on a screen.
During the day, whether I’m with my son or not, I often set my phone where I can’t see it, and check in only occasionally. I make a point of not responding to emails straight away unless it truly is time-sensitive, and I’ve banned myself from downloading addictive, time-sucking video games which might keep me from reading a book or tackling a creative project. Just as I try to eat right and balance sitting with physical activity, I strive to have a healthy relationship with technology. I do it for my own peace of mind, and also for my son’s.
Our kids keep a close eye on everything that we do, and your habits have a way of trickling down to them. We need to think about our own kids’ exposure to screens not only because the science is out on what all that screen time does to a young child’s brain, but because as compelling, confusing, and sometimes fraught the digital environment is for us, it’s an even more addictive, overwhelming, and potentially dangerous space for our children.
On WNYC’s latest New Tech City podcast, Manoush Zomorodi looks at parenting strategies in the digital age. She speaks with Susan Linn, psychologist and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood about how corporations reach our children directly through ads imbedded in social media sites and games. Linn says, “No parents in history have ever had to cope with the unprecedented convergence of ubiquitous, sophisticated, alluring, habit-forming screen technology and unfettered, unregulated advertisement. That is what the major problem is. There’s a lot of money being spent trying to convince you and your children that a screen is no different from a book and that more [screen]time is better than less [screen]time.”
It’s not. Unless your child is using software to create art or movies or write stories, or learning how to program with Codeacademy or MIT’s Scratch, they are working their way through pre-constructed puzzles like mice through mazes. Do video games strengthen certain kinds of logical thinking and visual awareness? Sure, to an extent. We have to encourage our kids to be digital creators and not just users — a misnomer, since most of the time we’re the ones being used.
“We believe that advertising and marketing is an issue of rights and freedoms,” Linn says. “It’s the rights of children to grow up, and the freedom for parents to raise them without being undermined by commercial interests [and] greed.”
Kids aren’t savvy enough to always know when they’re being manipulated. Heck, adults aren’t either. Stupid online quizzes are very popular right now, but really they are just another way for companies to collect information on your likes and dislikes. We have to always be careful when we click, as each click reveals something about ourselves, and who knows who’s out there watching us, besides our government.
I know, this sounds conspiratorial and scary, but it’s no secret that the Internet isn’t free. Every parent is going to have a different view as to the amount of time their kids spend online, or playing games, or otherwise sitting in front of a screen. In our house, my almost-5-year-old son gets between 45 minutes to an hour of television a day, while playing games on my phone is something that only happens on special occasions. We introduce him to new movies as a family, so that we can talk about what we’re seeing, and he’s yet to do anything online other than listen to audiobooks or watch YouTube videos about how things work.
Whatever you decide, one thing is certain: it’s important that you think carefully and establish rules that feel right for you and your family. As I’ve written here before, setting limits on technology can help build your child’s empathy with other people, and their patience. It also forces them to be imaginative, active thinkers, and value actual face-to-face communication as well as solitude. Because that’s what’s lost in this age of constant chatter and screens: the ability to just be a person, alone with your thoughts, bored even. That stillness is a wonderful, human thing, one we have to not lose sight of amid all of the candy colored digital distractions.