How involved in technology your children are is only half of the equation in its impact on them. The other half, of course, is the degree to which you are savvy in both your understanding and use of technology. The research indicating that children spend, on average, more than 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen (not including school and homework gives a persuasive sense of the typical young person’s relationship with technology. Your children may not be average; they may be more or less involved with technology.
So here’s an exercise for you. Estimate your children’s use and frequency with each of the forms of technology (i.e., TV, smartphone, video games, Internet). If your children are within the “normal” range of technology use you will probably be surprised, and maybe even shocked, at how much time they spend in the digital world.
So, how did your children develop their relationship with technology? In all likelihood, from your relationship with technology. You influence your children’s exposure to technology in two ways. First, whether consciously or otherwise, you determine the technology to which your children are exposed and the frequency of its use. You buy it for them, give them permission to use it, and provide them with the time and space for its use.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, you model the presence and use of technology in your own life. In doing so, you’re constantly send your children messages about the role that it should play in their lives. Think about how often you, for example, watch television, play video games, surf the Internet, or check your email, and you’ll probably see the kind of relationship that your children have or will develop with technology.
To help you better understand how tech savvy you are and your relationship with the connected world, take the exercise you just did for your children and apply it to yourself; in what form and with what frequency do you use technology? You may also be surprised at how much time you devote to technology.
Insights into the relationship that you and your children currently have with technology acts as a starting point from which you can use the information in my new book, Raising Generation Tech, to help you ensure that technology is a positive and healthy force in their lives.
My concern is not in technology itself; we cannot and should not try to slow or halt the inexorable march of progress. My interest is in our children’s relationship with that technology and my concern is in how technology will affect them. Will they be passive recipients—dare I say victims?—of technology who allow it to change their lives for better or worse without consideration? Or can we teach our children to be masters of technology and deliberately harness its tremendous value while minimizing its risks?
The answer to these questions will depend not only on the technology itself that is developed, but also on our exploration of how new technology will influence our children’s lives. Could anyone have predicted how the latest communication technology would change the world in which our children live? Well, in broad strokes, Marshall McLuhan did foresee the future more than 50 years ago. For the sake of future generations, we should continue to do so. Good questions to ask include:
What are our goals for this technology with our children?
How will it impact their intellectual, educational, physical, social, moral, and spiritual development?
How will it affect how our children use their time?
What benefit will it bring to our children?
What costs might arise from its use for our children?
The Law of Unintended Consequences
The Law of Unintended Consequences can be seen everywhere in our technological lives. Consider the Internet, smartphones, texting, Facebook, and Twitter. Here’s a satirical and fictitious quote attributed to twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey about his invention on theonion.com: “Twitter was intended to be a way for vacant, self-absorbed egotists to share their most banal and idiotic thoughts with anyone pathetic enough to read them. When I heard how Iranians were using my beloved creation for their own means—such as organizing a political movement and informing the outside world of the actions of a repressive regime—I couldn’t believe they’d ruined something so beautiful, simple, and absolutely pointless.”
Though clearly speaking with tongue firmly planted in cheek, who would have predicted that technology would play a key role in the election of a president or the promotion of freedom in countries such as China and Iran. At the same time, who would have thought that mobile phones would be used by terrorists and drug dealers to further their causes or that texting while driving would increase the risk of a car accident 23 times. It’s still far too early in the evolution of technology to know what its impact on children will be. Of course, we can never know a priori all of the unintended consequences of any new technology, but reducing their number could make the positive effects of new technology all the more beneficial and its negative effects more manageable and less destructive.
Let’s not forget that technology is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. What should that end be? Enhancing the quality of our children’s lives and fostering their fullest development, hopefully. Yet can we can say unequivocally that the latest technology is doing that? The answer is clearly no. As a result, it’s our responsibility as parents to ensure that the technology to which our children are exposed is well understood and used by them in ways that take full advantage of its many benefits while reducing its potential costs.
Yes, let us continue to nurture emerging technology to further leverage all that it has to offer. At the same time, the journey of progress should be guided by us, not lead by the technology itself. To do otherwise would be to take the risk that the technology will lead us a down a road of unintended consequences rather than our leading the technology down a road of our choosing. And our children will be the victims of our negligence.
This post is excerpted from Dr. Jim Taylor’s new parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World.