How Do Our Kids View Technology – Toy or Tool?

The thoughts below are my own; they are not intended to represent the views of HSE Schools.

A decade ago, when Facebook was new and my children were on the cusp of adolescence, my husband and I had decisions to make. These weren’t new decisions, merely the next phase of parenting conversations we’d had periodically over the years. Our essential question went something like this: What did we, as a family, believe about media and technology, and what would be the parameters of media use in our home? 

Thomas-FriendsIn 1989, when Eli made his appearance, ‘media’ meant time spent watching Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Reading Rainbow on PBS. In Eli’s preschool years, he adored Thomas the Train; but there was never a danger of media overload…Thomas was only broadcast for one half hour a day. Digital parenting was easy.

Several years passed. Media options were exploding, and our now three children seemed to gravitate toward any and every screen in eyeball range. We 97749_frontWhere_in_Time_is_Carmen_Sandiego-_1997_Coverresisted cable television, choosing instead to spend our media time playing Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? and Reader Rabbit on the desktop. My husband and I did have to set computer time limits, but screen time still had a clear definition (time watching media or playing digital games) and it was still easy for us, as parents, to maintain parameters.

Navigating the digital world  is not so easy for parents in 2016.  In the years since my children were young, digital tools have become woven so intricately into modern society, and into our personal and professional lives, that the concept of screen time as my children experienced it is now obsolete. It is no longer wise – or even possible – to assent to one hour of media time, head for the  kitchen, and call it good. If we leave our children to experience media without us, we risk a host of bad things. But the flipside is also true, if we leave our children to experience media without us, we miss great potential for family togetherness and relationship-building. We miss out on the amazing things that digital access has to offer.

Current technology brings the potential to create, connect and learn deeply as never before. Via broadband access, we can video chat with Grandma who lives far away. We can research the type of dog that we hope to adopt, and we can make a digital scrapbook of our family camping trip.  Web applications allow us to observe the tiniest of microscopic processes and glimpse the breadth of outer space.

Perhaps in 2016 a new approach to screen time is in order. Instead of asking, How much screen time is ‘safe’ for my children?,   we should ask,  How will we as a family use media and technology to deepen our relationships and learn together? This new approach shifts the focus of technology from media minutes to quality of content, and it will foster our children’s understanding that digital devices are tools, not toys. An iPad shouldn’t be thought of as an entertainment device or a reward for good behavior; all connected devices – smart phones, tablets, laptops, and whatever is to come – should be seen as powerful productivity, learning, and creation tools.

If our children are to grow up with wise media and technology habits, shouldn’t we, their parents and teachers, be the ones to teach and guide them in this arena?