Of parenting & a class called ‘Wasting Time on the Internet’

One of the central stereotypes of (or maybe urban legends about) us, our tech and our time is people filling every free or empty moment doing something on a screen – texting, playing a game, posting a photo, listening to a tune, checking email, reading a book, etc., etc. It makes us feel guilty or critical because it’s typically associated with lack of self-discipline or situational awareness. Remember the phrase “continuous partial attention” and how, when first used, it worried us? We certainly worry about “too much screen time” on our children’s part, because everybody from pundits to pediatricians almost always refers to it negatively. We sometimes characterize this monolithic thing called screen time as an “addiction,” or at least a waste of time.

So consider this: a University of Pennsylvania creative writing class entitled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media,” writes its professor, Kenneth Goldsmith in The New Yorker. “Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired dérive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace [the Surrealists’ ideal state for making art, he writes earlier in the essay] an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.”

So are we filling time or wasting time in this digital age? Both? Possibly, but it depends. It’s individual, situational and contextual. There is no once-and-for-all answer for everybody. And the answer changes as the individual user changes. Which is why explorations like this, over time, whether in classes or in families, are so important.

Stealth media literacy instruction

In any case, what Goldsmith is teaching in addition to creative writing, is a very conscious or thoughtful kind of “time-wasting” – turning it into self-expression. [He has also for years taught a class on “Uncreative Writing,” which he describes in the essay, and written a book of that title.] This is media-literate screen time. It has critical thinking running in the background. If our goal for our kids is safe, constructive screen time, this is how it’s achieved. Not by cloning Professor Goldsmith or teaching our kids classes in digitally informed creative writing (although I’d love to see that a unit, if not a whole class, in every high school’s language arts program), and definitely not by controlling and monitoring our kids’ screen time. But by…

  • [Their awareness]: …encouraging critical thinking in our kids about when, how and why they’re using their devices. I think there are many ways to do this – from formal media literacy instruction to a mindfulness practice to their parents finding “teachable moments” for reflecting together on what’s going on in social media or occasionally asking questions about something that happened in a social situation. But parents’ questions need to come from honest curiosity and support not judgment (critical thinking is thoughtful not judgmental). Experiences don’t become experiential learning when the facilitator brings judgment to the learning process. Experiential learning doesn’t happen when the reflection or articulation part gets swamped by fear or judgment (of either the learner or the experience).
  • [Our awareness]: …applying critical thinking not just to our own use of media and tech and what we’re modeling but also to how we think about our children’s use. If we’re always feeling fearful, guilty, suspicious or negative about technology, how open are we to the good in their digital experiences and expression, and how can we help them turn the bad into good or at least into what they’ll see as life lessons?

Media that may be making us smarter

That’s the parenting piece of not “wasting time on the Internet.” The other two interesting points Goldsmith raises are, first, the idea of acknowledging that creativity can arise in the digital versions of the “boredom” or aimlessness that give rise to creativity (maybe digital apps and devices aren’t, shouldn’t be, just “productivity tools”). Reflect on that for a second. [For some time I’ve been writing about K-12 teachers “clearing space for learning,” allowing children agency to figure things out and talking about the need for pure play in digital as well as physical spaces.] The second point is what I suspect is one of Goldsmith’s very reasons for creating this new class. Put this under your parental critical thinking cap:

“I have no doubt that the students in ‘Wasting Time on the Internet’ will use Web surfing as a form of self-expression,” the professor writes. “Every click is indicative of who we are: indicative of our likes, our dislikes, our emotions, our politics, our world view. Of course, marketers have long recognized this, but literature hasn’t yet learned to treasure—and exploit—this situation. The idea for this class arose from my frustration with reading endless indictments of the Web for making us dumber. I’ve been feeling just the opposite. We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently—skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language—in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary.”

And if we can do all that on screens with awareness running in the background, think how much richer and more meaningful our screen time will be!

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