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The Digital World is Full of Possibility and Worry

raising-generation-tech-dr-jim-taylor I come to the discussion of the impact of technology on our lives from two perspectives. I hold a Ph.D. in psychology, am the author of Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for Media-Fueled World, blog about the psychology of technology, and speak regularly to parents, educators, and young people about the impact of technology on their lives. As a professional at the nexus of technology and humanity, I see both the wonderful benefits technology has to offer and the grave concerns that it presents to every level of society.

I also come to this discussion as the father of two daughters (ages 9 and 7) who are growing up in a world in which technology has become a dominant presence in the lives of children and families. As a parent, I see how technology can open up a world of possibility for children. At the same time, I see how technology offers a veritable Pandora’s Box for young people fraught with unknown, unanticipated, and unintended consequences being realized every day in the Internet Age.

Let me preface this post with a declaration: I am not a Luddite or anti technology! In fact, I love technology, am a bit of a tech geek, and couldn’t do what I do without computers, smartphones, social media, and all of the amazing tools at our disposal in our digital world. As I share my thoughts about technology, I am not trying to Chicken Little—“The sky is falling!”—but rather Paul Revere—“The techies are coming!”—alerting and educating people about the technological invasion with which we are currently confronted. Admittedly, I tend to focus on the negatives of technology, but only because the positives are so obvious.

Let’s start with my professional side.

There are five things I believe about technology:

• Technology is one of the most powerful forces in children’s lives today

• Technology is neither good nor bad, but it is not neutral

• Too early, too much, and unguided exposure to media will not prepare children for successful and happy lives

• Children must develop a healthy relationship with technology to prosper

• Parents are primarily responsible for the relationship that their children have with technology

There is strong evidence that technology is playing a increasingly central role in how children spend their time. An oft-quoted 2009 survey conducted by the Kaiser Foundation found that children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend, on average, more than 7.5 hours a day in front of a non-school-related screen. Given the busy lives children lead these days and the reality that there are only so many hours in a day, this statistic is almost unbelievable. And it’s not far fetched to assume that this number has grown in the last five years as technology has become even more deeply embedded in our lives.

There is no doubt that the digital world has much to offer children and families. The Internet provides an almost infinite universe of information that can inspire and educate. It can connect people across vast distances. The Internet can bring people together based on shared values, interests, and ideas. We have seen technology foment causes and movement, literally helping to change the world, mostly for the better. Technology had catalyzed collaboration, creativity, and innovation. And, in many ways, it has helped people to lead more productive and efficient lives.

But the digital world has a dark side as well. Cyberbullying, online pornography, privacy and anonymity, sexting, greater influence of an unhealthy popular culture, so-called multitasking, commercialism, the “quantification” of friends, shallowness of communications, and just plain bad manners. And Internet addiction? For sure. Though the American Psychiatric Association decided not to designate Internet addiction as a psychiatric disorder, when it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And this goes not only for children who are attached their screens, but also many parents who are playing with their smartphones when they should be watching and interacting with their children.

Now for my personal side as a father.

In my own neighborhood north of SF, I see most young people walking around with their phones in their hands as if it were a cyborg-like extension of their arm. I see groups of kids hanging out in parks, but not looking at or talking to each other. Rather, they have their eyes glued to the screens of their phones. Parents of our girls’ friends allow their children to have Facebook accounts before they are legally allowed to. Not long ago, my eldest daughter had a playdate at a friend’s house and her friend’s idea of fun was playing games on her new iPad while my daughter just stood their watching (suffice it to say, that was my daughter’s last playdate at her friend’s house).

My wife and I believe that the more connected our children will be to the Internet, the less connected they will be to us, other people, and the world around them. To that end, we have chosen to severely limit our daughters’ exposure to technology. We don’t have cable or satellite TV. Our girls aren’t allowed to use our smartphones (except to make calls), they can’t play on our computers, and they’ve only seen about ten movies in their lives (they appear to be one of only a handful of children in America who haven’t seen Frozen). My wife and I limit our own use of technology when we’re around our daughters. We also emphasize to our girls that technology is a tool, not a toy.

Our daughters also attend a Waldorf school that bucks the recent trend of early and frequent use of technology in schools by encouraging minimal exposure to media, so their educational experience reflect our values and sensibilities around technology. And we do our best to surround our family with like-minded people, so we can be confident that our daughters will be getting mostly healthy messages about technology from others in their immediate social world.

Certainly, when the time is right we will expand their experience with technology; we can’t keep them in a tech bubble forever (nor do we want to). The reality is that they are growing up in a media-dominated world and need to master the relevant tools. It doesn’t, however, require putting an smartphone, tablet, or computer in your child’s crib! The right time means that they have developed healthy attitudes toward technology and good decision-making skills. And, importantly, when technology hasn’t become their default when bored, playing, or just hanging out (as is the case with many children these days).

In the meantime, our family emphasizes unstructured time, creative play, art, sports, being outdoors, reading, music, and just plain hanging out as a family.

So those are my takes the role of technology in family’s lives wearing both my professional and parent hats. I will conclude this post with a few final thoughts.

First, of all the concerns surrounding excessive use of technology by children and adults, my greatest involves opportunity costs. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it means that time spent using technology means time not spent doing other things that I believe are far more valuable and healthy, for example, being with family and friends, exercising, and studying. I have no problem with young people (and their parents) using technology—I use it plenty!—but it should be the exception, not the rule, to how they spend their time. In other words, it shouldn’t dominate your family’s lives.

Second, I’m not here to tell you how you should use technology in your family. That’s a decision that only you can make. What I will do, though, is make the following recommendations as you explore the role of technology in your children’s and family’s lives:

• Be a role model for technology: Your children will likely adopt whatever relationship you have with media (and many parents these days are hopelessly addicted).

• Stay connected (in the old-school sense) to your children by spending time with them and interacting with them directly rather than through technology.

• Make deliberate choices, based on your family, priorities, and lifestyle, about which and how much technology is present in your family’s lives.

• Talk to your children about technology and how it can impact them in ways both healthy and not.

• Set limits and provide guidance in your children’s use of technology. • Most importantly, disconnect!: Have scheduled time when all of you must turn off your technology and live and enjoy life in the analog world.

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