Three Words for Digital-Age Parents: Access, Balance, and Support

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Here’s a given about being the parent of a young child—it’s exhausting. Mix in some unknowns like your child’s seemingly unnatural attraction to glowing screens, and it can be bewildering. What’s the right mix of apps and grass stains?

Here’s another given. There is no “correct” answer, and you’re probably too busy to read a 15-page research synopsis, like the Fred Rogers/NAEYC joint position statement on use of technology with young children. (Just in case you have the time, see http://www.naeyc.org/content/technology-and-young-children.) The document addresses many of the concerns and controversies involved with raising a young child in the digital age. Full disclosure: I was one of the many advisors to the document, so I know it well. Because you have laundry to fold, let me boil down the key ideas to three words:  access, balance, and support, or ABS. Just like your car’s brake system.

How (and When) to Limit Kids’ Tech Use

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No one cares more about your child’s well-being and success than you do. In today’s digitally-fueled times, that means guiding him or her not just in the real world but in the always-on virtual one as well. Teach your children to use technology in a healthy way and pick up the skills and habits that will make them successful digital citizens. From 2-year-olds who seem to understand the iPad better than you to teenagers who need some (but not too much) freedom, we’ll walk you through how to make technology work for your family at each stage of the journey.

Why Tech Is Starting to Make Me Uneasy

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But despite the baubles and billion-dollar office parks, I’m really not feeling it this year. The technology industry is still exciting; it still packs the capacity for surprise. But where the surprise once felt like Christmas morning, it’s now like the entering-the-darkened-basement scene of a horror movie.

Technology has crossed over to the dark side. It’s coming for you; it’s coming for us all, and we may not survive its advance.

So why am I feeling so bad about tech?

Well, who isn’t, right? Look around you. It’s difficult to get jazzed about smartphones and social networks when smartphones and social networks might be ruining the world. The technologies we were most excited about 10 years ago are now implicated in just about every catastrophe of the day. (See how Russian propagandists used Facebook and Twitter to inject false narratives into the news media last year.)

The industry is spawning groundbreaking new services, like artificial intelligence or augmented reality, that may well improve much about our lives — self-driving cars, for instance, could save tens of thousands of lives a year.

Survey: 90% of Millennials Believe Technology Creates More Opportunity

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I realized that most of the articles featured here talk about how technology is wrecking the world and human interaction, and then came across this counterpoint. Need some stats to show that tech is actually perceived as helpful and good? Check out the excerpt from this article:

More than 2,000 adults participated in the online survey, and the results indicate that overall, people are trying to manage the use of technology to maintain societal norms. However, the data also reinforces what we already know about millennials: they see technology as an enhancement to daily life.

… nine out of 10 millennials believe technology, and specifically the internet, gives them access to the kinds of jobs they’re suited for.

Across the board, survey participants indicated that technology has helped them connect with people they care about.

Kids Don’t Always Love Technology

Kids Don’t Always Love Technology

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Kids don’t always want the latest gadget or app, nor do they love technology unreservedly. Just like adults, kids love the new possibilities—the things they can do now that were difficult or impossible before. They love the ways they can learn, collaborate, create and share with technology. On the other hand, they find technology to be frustrating and difficult at times—just like adults do. Here are some of my observations from my field work about the difficulties that kids have with technology.

The Upside to Technology? It’s Personal

Illustration: Anthony Foronda

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In a sense, that’s what technology has always done. That’s true with planes, trains and automobiles. And that’s true with smartphones, social networks and search engines. They, and other technologies, connect us to people who are not with us, geographically or physically, and make us feel a little less alone in this big confusing world.

…We do so through the digital footprints left behind on Facebook and Twitter, the photos on our smartphones, and all the morsels scooped up by search engines. Technology allows us to connect.

So does the good outweigh the bad? For me, yes. And I think it will in the future too, as newer technologies force us to grapple with even bigger ethical quandaries.

Take driverless cars, which I believe will have a huge, unknowable impact on society. When that technology becomes widely adopted — some say this will happen in two years; others say 20 — many will lament the negatives. Pizza delivery guys, truckers, taxi drivers and countless others could lose their jobs. Hackers and terrorists may turn driverless cars into weapons. Teenagers everywhere will no longer experience the joy of getting a driver’s license.

And yet, there will be many positives as well. Roads may be converted into parks. Finding parking may become a thing of the past (as will parking tickets). Driving time may be reclaimed for more productive or enjoyable activities, like watching movies, exercising or sleeping.

Born before 1985? Then you’re a ‘digital immigrant’

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Michael Harris’s fascinating The End of Absence, which should be required reading for anyone born before 1985 (and anyone else interested in tech). Harris’s topic is us – “digital immigrants”. The last generation that will remember the world before the internet. He writes: “We have in this brief historical moment… a very rare opportunity… These are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After… There’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”

The book is a paean to the quiet pleasures (and productive frustration) created by absence – of noise, distraction, entertainment, other people…and the consequences of a partly digitised, constantly connected existence. It sets out to answer questions like: are we losing the ability to think deeply? To remember? How is “continuous partial attention” changing our culture and our brain chemistry? Our aptitude for distraction might have an evolutionary imperative (it’s how we notice the approach of predators, apparently), but in the context of the internet, is it damaging us as much as our disposition toward fat and sugar, which was equally useful to prehistoric man? The answers are more interesting and not so luddite as you might be imagining (though the actual Luddites get a few words of praise because of what they stood for – children’s and workers’ rights – rather than the technology they took against).