Children and technology

Children listening to an iPod on shared headphones
Wired kids - listening to music on older brother's iPod during a long car journey

I don’t write about technology here much. It’s not the focus of the blog, although ‘raising children’ is a strong theme for me, as evidenced by my word cloud. But that theme is heavily weighted towards the other themes that I explore here and, as such, technology doesn’t get to intrude. But technology clearly is a part of our lives – I’m writing this blog, for one thing, and my eldest son has two (he’s realizing that combining them into a single blog is probably a good idea). Technology is the thing that gives me pause. Sometimes I feel so clear about it and at other times it befuddles me.

Last evening I was taking a bit of time to surf, mostly because it is NaBloPoMo, and to catch up with some blogs that I visit occasionally. I came across an article by Chris Jordan (mother to seven!) on cultural references that our children will never understand, such as film for cameras, television ‘snow’ and why we say someone sounds like a ‘broken record’. Some of it really made me smile. Explaining the idea of developing film to kids these days is quite funny, and I remember my sons looking at me very strangely as I explained rotating disposable flash bulbs (now there is something the world is much better off without!).

But the rest of the article left me kind of cold, and I realize that I may be an anomaly in some places (but I’m pretty sure not in all). My children and the adults in our family wear wristwatches (ie rather than relying on cellphones to tell the time), we’re all still very comfortable with print maps and don’t use GPS, and no one in our family (currently) texts or relies on a mobile phone in any way. My 13 year old is not on Facebook. I don’t (yet) have children who need to be ‘constantly connected’, but I know that many parents live this reality every day. I like to think that we’re not dealing with that because of the choices we’ve made, but it’s no doubt even more complex than that.

I think that ‘family culture’ is a biggie, and the fact is that my husband and I don’t go in for communications gadgets. We do work in technology and make our money that way, so computers are very present in our lives, but we didn’t own a mobile phone until this year, and it’s still a real and running joke that we can’t get the hang of it (it was purchased for potential emergencies). We have a pretty nice camera and I do manage to get some good shots, some of which I post here, but my boys call me the ‘Camera Forgetter’ as I forget it at least as often as I remember to bring it along (and I usually forget it when there is a shot of something that they would really, really like to have). We do speak fairly disdainfully of Facebook and Twitter around the dinner table, and we’ve never been seen playing games on a handheld device. If we were tweeting, facebooking, gamers on our cellphones, I think our kids’ expectations would be quite different.

The other main positive influence that I think we’ve had is refusing to simply provide our children with portable technology. When our eldest was nine and we went on a family trip to the UK my mother bought him a CD player, which was greatly appreciated on the airplane (books on CD from the library and the odd music CD). I remember it felt like a huge treat. But he didn’t get an iPod until he was 11 and had funds enough of his own. Which, not incidentally, I believe is around the time that he was ‘ready’ for such a device. He is approaching 14 and still has the same device. My eight-year old has wistfully looked at the iPod on a handful of occasions over the past two years, but really has no desire or use for one (he still plays tons of imaginative games for goodness sake!) and he certainly won’t get one until he’s sufficiently motivated to save up for one. I expect that may happen when he’s about 11!

We’ve never bought handheld gaming devices for the kids, never had any kind of in-car entertainment unit, and certainly have not bought them cellphones. My eldest has made it to 13 without needing a cellphone; he may feel differently when he goes to high school next year (don’t worry, if you think I sound at all smug or self-satisfied, I know I’m in for some very big changes next year!), and if he does he can purchase it. He is starting a part time job at the local library this winter so he’ll certainly have the ability to save up for something like a phone, if he wishes (though flying lessons are awfully important to him and a heck of a lot more expensive).

The other decision that we made that I think has helped is not having cable (or satellite or whatever) TV. We don’t have any channels. We watch movies that we buy or rent, and a couple of programs that my mother generously tapes on VHS for us (Time Team from TVO and Mythbusters from The Discovery Channel, if you’re curious)! So the boys aren’t being marketed to a great deal, and they are now old enough to know when they are and have good ripostes of their own. They have a very healthy cynicism towards advertising.

So, here’s what we do have in the way of technology in our house and how we’re dealing with it:

1) The older boy has two blogs and a YouTube channel. This boy is endlessly creative in terms of building things (with Lego, K’nex, etc.) and likes to share his creations online. He was over the moon when he got some positive comments on a video he made about creating a chess set using Lego. He also likes to film crashes using his flight simulation programs (more on that below). I’m pretty happy with his experience in this realm so far and I’ve learned from him, which is always fun. The blogs are another place for him to sharpen up his writing skills and he can put together a pretty nice post.

2) The older boys loves computers and computing and loves to dabble. When our laptop died earlier this year he was largely responsible for trouble shooting his way through a variety of options in an attempt to rebuild it. He has read tomes on computing from the library and learns a lot from his dad (when he’s feeling receptive – bit of a maverick, this one). He dabbles and makes mistakes but often gets things right. I can’t keep him from computers, obviously.

3) The older boy also wants to be a pilot and loves computer games, so it made sense for him to get the gear needed to fully simulate a flight environment and to be able to play flight simulation games under optimal circumstances. He paid for most of this gear himself. He is very, very keen and would play endlessly if allowed, which he knows he is not. Currently he’s allowed to play a few evenings a week, for a couple of hours at a time. This boy is a straight A student, is taking his Bronze Medallion in lifesaving this fall, is a Scout, knows more about World War II from his recreational reading over the past year than I could ever hope to accumulate in a lifetime, has already started ground school in ‘real life’ as he plans to fly for his career if he possibly can, and has a part time job as well. He’s creative and a good cook/baker, and extremely well rounded, so I find I cannot say no to screen time during the week for him. (I still agonize over this however, mostly because I know that I have a complicated relationship with technology.)

4) Which leads me to younger brother who, at eight, is a completely different person to his older sibling. We’re a huge book loving family, but this boy (like his dad did at his age) struggles with reading and writing and finds school exhausting and challenging. So different from my firstborn, who cheerfully heads off to school each day. My youngest loves books as much as his brother, but just can’t access them in the same way (yet), and the whole reading/writing thing is pretty fundamental in a school environment… This boy, like so many younger siblings, is getting access to a range of experiences and things earlier than his older brother did, and at eight has a schedule that (officially) allows him to do an hour of computer time on the weekend, and half an hour one day during the week. In reality, he often ends up logging more time than that and he has a natural craving for computer games when he’s tired and frazzled from school. This is where I get into a huge muddle. Part of me feels like it’s not a big deal and a healthy trade off when considered against all of the things that we do as a family, but when I’m in the thick of it none of that makes a lot of sense to me. At those times I can devolve into a complete technological luddite who wonders why on earth kids need or want to play computer games at all and why the hell can’t they just go outside already?!

The stumbling block that we’ve reached with this child is that he is usually no longer happy stopping when he is supposed to; this is newer and extremely frustrating. Once upon a time he would dutifully step away at the appointed time and that was that. This boy has issues with anxiety and a low ceiling for external input when he’s feeling stressed (for reasons which are not always readily apparent, but are invariably down to mental fatigue of some kind) and he has transferred this behavior to his computer time. It’s a great and no doubt simple little knot for us to unpick, but I’ve been feeling completely unmotivated to deal with it head on recently. I guess I’m glad to have stumbled across that article as it’s prompted me to look at this topic in another way and to re-examine how I feel about how our own kids are wired. Overall, I feel we’re doing pretty well, but that it’s something we need to keep our eyes on all the time and keep talking to our children about.

So I guess my ‘luddite’ moments serve a purpose.

3 thoughts on “Children and technology

  1. Thanks for this post. And to think there are ipads out for young kids now. I posted an article about how schools in the U.K. are using those in the classroom to help with literacy. And that’s where I am at – just not wanting my kids to be behind the curve. Now will I purchase the ipad for them this holiday? If I could afford it – maybe? But probably not…

    1. I really appreciate your comment. My youngest just used the laptop computer for the first time the other day and it was a revelation to see how willing he was to spend time composing sentences on it when he finds handwriting laborious and painful. The keyboard composing still looking painful to me, but he was happy doing it. I realized that he’ll probably need more technology to help him in the classroom. I’ll be checking out your article – thanks!

  2. I never thought about the cultural references – funny! It does sound like overall your family is doing great! Nice to have that chance to step away and look at it from a different perspective!

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