I took my sons out for sushi the other night and, to my amazement, heard them telling me something very similar to what Susan Maushart, a New Yorker who was living in Western Australia, writes in her new book about totally unplugging her teenage kids for six months. My very social sons, 13 and 18, whom I have not unplugged, told me that “all this technology we [teenagers] constantly use is hurting everybody’s face-to-face communication.” Maushart’s story, as told in the Washington Post, is that she “decided to unplug the family because the kids – ages 14, 15 and 18 when she started The Experiment – didn’t just ‘use media,’ as she put it. They ‘inhabited’ media…. Her girls had become mere ‘accessories of their own social-networking profile, as if real life were simply a dress rehearsal (or more accurately, a photo op) for the next status update’.”
This is very similar to what my sons were telling me, and it gave me pause. I’m not having a change of heart, here. I’m not saying technology should be banned, because I feel it has too many good uses for our kids and it’s part of their futures. What I am saying is that we all, adults and kids, need to be in the driver’s seat where technology’s concerned – we drive it, undistracted and unimpaired, not the other way around. Digital tech and media are potentially valuable tools that can be used for good or ill, accidentally or intentionally, like age-old tools (a kitchen knife comes to mind), only much more fun, multi-purpose, and compelling. So we need to use them judiciously, really thinking about the value of moderation and what “constructive use” actually means, personally and socially. In that same conversation the other night, my middle-schooler told me that, when he was walking home from school that day, he took his earbuds out. “It’s nice to just listen to the wind and think,” he explained. I loved that he discovered that himself.
Your children may achieve greatness if you’re a “tiger mother” or father like Amy Chua, but you don’t have to be – you don’t even have to conduct an experiment like Susan Maushart’s (hmm, tiger and maus?) – to support mindful, constructive, and enriching use of digital media by your children. Helping them think clearly and critically about how and why they’re using technology is increasingly important. It may take vigilance on parents’ part, but it also may not. Many, many kids will figure these things out on their own with just a little encouragement and plenty of love from their parents.
* It was very interesting to me that my sons brought up the very topic addressed in MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle’s just-released book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (don’t miss Turkle on The Colbert Report). What timing, along with “tiger mother” and…
* The release of Susan Maushart’s book, The Winter of Our Disconnect * “Thoughts for a new year (in the digital age)”
* “The new-media monsters we’ve created for our kids”
* “PBS Frontline’s ‘Digital Nation’: Presenting our generation with a crucial choice”
* “Major study on youth & media: Let’s take a closer look”