Playing Video Games With My Son Isn’t What I Thought It Would Be

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My son and I do still play those competitive games, and I hope that he’s learning about practice and perseverance when we do. But those games are about stretching and challenging him to fit the mold of the game’s demands. When we play Minecraft together, the direction of his development, and thus our relationship, is reversed: He converts the world into expressions of his own fantasies and dreams. And by letting me enter and explore those dream worlds with him, I come to understand him in a way that the games from my childhood do not.

Touring the worlds that my son has settled over the last couple of years, I find a lot of the imagery one might expect from a kid his age. Throughout are standard fantasies like living in a treehouse or on a boat. The dominant themes vary as I pass through time: trains in his earliest worlds, then robots, a long streak of pyramids. Pirate ships, particularly half-sunken ones with treasure chests, remain a constant.

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Parents, I Was Smug About Your Videos of Your Children. I’m Sorry.

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I would like to apologize to all the parents I mocked for taking videos at elementary school performances and soccer games a couple of decades ago when my children — and theirs — were young. I can remember exchanging eye-rolls with friends or with my husband when some mommy or daddy with a big state-of-the-art video camera popped up in the row in front of me at a school assembly, or pushed through the crowd to run up and down the soccer sidelines following the ball.

Who on earth would ever watch those videos, we wondered. How sad, we said to one another, to see the big moment through a viewfinder. We didn’t own a video camera, and we were a bit smug about it; we were the parents who actually watched the soccer game, or the play, who participated in the party instead of filming it.

Against Cuteness

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A 3-year-old parroting adult-penned lines like “Charles says the gym makes beefcakes. Then I’m a vegetarian!” may rankle only the oversensitive. It would certainly bother Holt. Sentimentality about children’s cuteness, he wrote, “always leads to callousness and cruelty” because it comes from an impulse to see children’s interior lives as “abstract and unreal.” “We look at the lives and concerns and troubles of children as we might look at actors on a stage, a comedy so long as it does not become a nuisance,” he wrote. “Since their feelings and their pain are neither serious nor real, any pain we may cause them is not real either.”

With real-life children, “cute” happens spontaneously—when your child unexpectedly hugs your vacuum cleaner (like mine has recently started doing) or tells you a funny story about a bird. But cuteness in movies, like the ones that made Shirley [Temple] famous, or on Instagram, is a carefully managed product. It’s a commodity for your consumption. The way cuteness gets sold online, in on-demand bursts, enforces the idea that a child’s cuteness—and her very person—exists in service of adults.

The New Kid Defense: The Algorithm Made Me Do It

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All my noble dreams of raising my two daughters around wooden Montessori-approved toys and bright-red metal wagons has completely degraded. But watching someone else play with toys is where I draw the line. “Is that a toy video?” I call warningly from across the room. Both girls suddenly jump back from the screen. “iPad picked it!” they defend.

And there it is. The algorithm defense — essentially the modern-day equivalent of “my dog ate my homework.” Like most streaming services we’re all familiar with, YouTube Kids automatically advances from one video to the next, attempting to predict what my kids will like.

Sadly, my children have watched enough of these toy videos without me noticing that the app often jumps there. So instead of blaming each other for the video selection, my kids blame a third thing I need to discipline: the machine.

 

Is Your Child a Phone ‘Addict’?

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Instead of becoming overly fixated on teens’ smartphone use in general, it is important to think about “what are the applications on the smartphone and how is your particular child using the applications on that smartphone,” said Katie Davis, assistant professor at the University of Washington and co-director of the UW Digital Youth Lab, whose research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social and academic lives. Parents trying to monitor use can have difficulty distinguishing abusive behavior from appropriate use, especially since teens use their devices for both schoolwork and free time, often simultaneously.

When Your Dad Is BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Featuring Hugo Smith, age 14, grade 9.

Hugo Smith.

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How much time would you say he spends on his phone?

Well, a lot. He used to do this thing that would just drive me insane where, while I was talking to him, he would be doing work on his phone, and he’d just be like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” And eventually I’d be like, “OK, what do you think?” And he’d be like, “Uhhhhhhhh.”

So what we convinced him to do was, when he needs to do work stuff, but he wants to spend time with us, and we catch him working like that—he goes into another room, does the work he needs to do, and then he can come back and give us his full attention.

So how did you get him to do that? Did you have to stage an intervention?

No, he sort of came up with it a bit. But also I’ve found that when I’m playing tennis, even just ping-pong, it’s great because we’re both so focused on each other.

Does your dad use Twitter a lot on his phone?

Oh yeah, occasionally at family events and stuff.

How do you know when he’s tweeting?

I check his Twitter account. He is always on Twitter.

So you’ll be at a family event, and you’ll look at Twitter just to see if your dad is tweeting?

Definitely. I’ll be like, “Dad, you retweeted something 30 seconds ago.”

But usually at those family events I’m retweeting things too.

Would you say your parents have a healthy work-life balance?

I think my dad’s definitely gotten better about it. A couple years ago, he worked more, but he’s definitely figuring it out now, it’s good.

What do you think motivated him to figure it out?

Just a lot of “Dad, get off your phone. Daddy, we’re talking to you.”

How to Teach Your Kids About Digital Privacy and Security

Digital security

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First, tell kids the reasons behind the boundaries you set. When you ask a child not to share passwords or not to send messages to strangers online, also take a few minutes to explain why such behaviors could pose a risk.

Analogies using situations from the physical world can help. For example, children probably know that while it might be OK to share their home address in person with a close friend, it’s not OK to give it to a stranger on the street. But sharing information online, regardless of whom you’re sharing it with, requires extra care. This is because it’s easier for someone online to pretend to be someone else, and for information online to be shared with more than the person you intended. Remind children to check with an adult if they’re ever in doubt about sharing something online. And when they do ask you, explain how you made your decision.

Second, parents can look for examples of good or bad privacy practices embedded in everyday tools that children use. The website for PBS Kids, for example, tells children not to use any personal information, such as their last name or address, in their username. And instead of asking kids to create security questions, which often involve personal information, the site has children select three pictures to create a “secret code.” As children interact with sites like PBS Kids, parents can ask whether they understand why the websites have been set up this way.

Third, parents can check out existing resources related to privacy and security online. Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute offer great guides about privacy challenges children may face online and how parents can teach kids about them. PBS Kids, too, has created a series of technology-focused cartoon videos and parent guides that include lessons related to privacy and security. The U.K.-based company Excite-ed even developed a series of kid-friendly apps that include privacy-related tips and quizzes.

The task of teaching children about digital privacy and security shouldn’t just fall on parents. Educators are well positioned to help teach kids about these issues, given the increasing use of computers and tablets in schools. Companies who design and market technology also have a responsibility to respect children’s privacy interests.