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Left to Their Devices

Left to Their Devices

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite here, but I think parents need to consider carefully how their kids use electronics.

I say this as someone who uses a computer to do almost all my work. I say this as someone who has a smart phone (though it’s technically for work). I say this as someone who uses three different operating systems in his house. I say this as someone who had a blog before they were cool and then uncool. I say this as someone who manages five different social media feeds (all for work). I say this as someone who has owned a game console of every generation since the original Sega. I say this as someone who typesets in LaTeX (go look it up).

In other words, I’m not a technophobe. I have great respect for what technology can do as a tool and as entertainment. I use it to accomplish what I need to accomplish every day and to access all kinds of interesting and challenging things. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should (or even could anymore) do without out it.

I am, however, suggesting that too often we parents don’t provide our kids with good examples of how to use technology. They too seldom see us using it as a tool to accomplish things, as a resource to learn things, or as a means to better ourselves and others. They too often see us using it as a distraction to avoid accomplishing things, as an amusement to avoid learning things, as a way to idle away our time. Our example teaches them that technology is for watching mindless YouTube clips, idly swiping through Facebook posts, or texting the mindless minutia of our lives.

The bigger problem is that kids have even less capacity than adults to make wise decisions about what to do with their technologies, especially when their examples (including their parents) point them so strongly in poor directions. It’s not just that they play video games, it’s that they don’t know what to do when there isn’t a game in their hand. It’s not just that they watch YouTube, it’s that they watch so much of it and that so much of it is silly at best and grossly inappropriate at worst. It’s not just that they text each other, it’s that texting has replaced the capacity to have strong real world relationships.

This past weekend we brought a friend with us to Manitoulin Island, and my homestay student came also. So, even though my kids have no phones, there were two phones in the car, which meant that they saw nothing of the trip except the video games those two kids were playing. They missed most of the incredible scenery of the Bruce Peninsula. They missed the crazy beauty of a stormy ferry ride to the island and the more gentle beauty of a calm ride back.

When we were at the cottage it was even worse, because their cousins have phones and computers and a television and three game consoles. Every day, on one of the most beautiful beachfronts you can imagine and with gorgeous fall weather, we continually had to drag everyone off their devices and herd them outside. Clearly at this point their devices are no longer helping them to do more in the world. Clearly their devices are now preventing them from engaging with the world around them.

That’s not to mention all the excellent research being done that relates excessive time on social media to depression and anxiety in youth and that warns of the cognitive problems associated with too much screen time of any kind in young children. There are also the problems that arise from kids using devices to harass and bully each other, sharing illegal and harmful material, and getting hooked into internet scams.

Again, I’m not saying that we should just avoid technology, but we need to do more to help kids use technology in healthy ways than just “educate them about the dangers of the internet” and then leave them to their devices. We need to take a stronger position than that. It might be different from kid to kid and from family to family, and you might have some ideas that we haven’t considered, but here’s what we’ve decided is best for our kids.

1) No portable devices that can access the internet or play games (phones or tablets).

2) Portable music devices (mp3 players) only when not interacting with other people (not at the table or in conversation).

3) All devices that can access the internet to be used in public areas like the living room or dining room, never in a bedroom or other solitary room.

4) No recreational screen time on week nights, only on weekends (homework or job related work is fine).

5) No social media accounts for kids, only email (so that they can sign up for school sites and whatnot).

I know that some of you are probably freaking out at this list (my kids certainly do at times). The culture of the device has become so commonplace that we can hardly imagine kids surviving under these rules. But the hardest part is still to come – my wife and I live by most of these rules too.

True, we do have phones and social media accounts, but we don’t use technology (even answering the phone) at the table or while we’re in conversation. We only use our computers in the dining room or the office. We don’t watch recreational screen time on weekdays. Even more, we try not to use our devices to merely idle our time with silliness, but only as tools to engage more with the world around us.

It might seem like a big step to take, but it’s a good step. You and your kids will both benefit if you can find the courage to take it.