Back when social media was in its infancy (remember MySpace?) and my children were very young, I was lamenting to a friend how scared I was of how children were oversharing on social media, and how difficult it was to be a parent in a time when children had so much access to technology. My friend, with all the wisdom of her 25 years, said to me, "While I can understand your fear, you can't completely cut your children off from social media, the internet, cell phones, and all that. It's how this generation communicates. No one calls the house phone anymore."
She went on to give me examples of how kids, classes, and schools organize events using technology, and if my kids didn't have any access to all that, it would be very easy for them to fall through the cracks. For a moment, I imagined this is how a parent from the late 1800's felt when telephones started replacing Victorian visiting cards. It did, however, also make me realize that technology — telegraph, telephone, television, or tablet — is just a tool. To be dramatic, a tool that can be used for good or evil. To be more realistic, a tool for sharing knowledge and information. To put things in perspective, here's an infographic showing how technology has developed through the ages and how humans have always had the desire to share information and knowledge.
What you do with that tool is up to you. While it would be easy to make a distinction between preschoolers and high schoolers, and say that, of course, you would let your high school kid use a tablet, but no way would you let your preschooler go on the internet, one of the most humbling lessons I have learned as a parent is that lines of distinction are never permanent, especially when it comes to ever-changing technology.
The reality is that our kids are growing up in a world where electronics, the internet, and social media are part of their daily lives. Technology is used every day in the classroom from preschool on up. I was stunned when my younger daughter put together a PowerPoint presentation — in kindergarten! By the time she was in fourth grade, the school was introducing coding to the entire elementary school.
I finally broke down last school year, and got my two high school-aged kids iPhones because they use them in class to do research, take tests, make or keep up with school club announcements (on social media), and put together class projects such as presentations and videos. My son recently applied for a high school club officer position, and part of the application process was to create a video about himself showing why he was the right person for the job. Seriously? How many 40 year olds would even expect that to be part of an application process?
At home, I find that we use smartphones and tablets for all kinds of things. My older daughter listens to music on her phone, and it warms my heart when she's rocking out and singing along to Enrique Iglesias or Shakira... in Spanish! Woot! Woot! My younger daughter loves to code, and apparently has 250 followers on Scratch, a coding website designed by MIT for kids. My son does play more video games than I like sometimes, but he plays Draw Something and Trivia Crack with me a lot. And all of the kids play 2048, and no matter how hard I try, I can't beat them at it!
For school (and what the kids laughingly call “mommy summer school"), we read a lot of books on the Kindle (in various formats, including the free ones on phones and tablets). Although I resisted e-readers for years and still buy paper books, I now think that e-readers are great because you can highlight and take notes in the book, then do a search for your markings later when you need to write your paper or book report. An added bonus, especially for kids and second language learners, you can touch a word, and the e-reader defines it for you. We also do a lot of fun internet research on our devices — we just made a super cool dry ice bubble machine that we learned how to make from YouTube videos, and identified parts of a computer by surfing the internet.
Then there's TED, Khan Academy, and Google's Cultural Institute. If you truly want to see how the internet can be used for good, here are just three examples of how a person can educate one's self practically for free. All you need is access to wifi.
We also use a lot of Spanish (and other language) apps, whose game format keeps the kids' attention and improves their pronunciation. Math apps, especially for math tables, will save your sanity and prevent tears and meltdowns, I promise. For folks who find dissecting animals inhumane and/or gross, there are apps that let you dissect animals virtually. There are also apps that bring history and art history to life, let you create music, and give you virtual paint to create art masterpieces. I swear I don't work for Apple, but, seriously, whatever your interest, there's an app for that!
At this point, I can already hear the critics out there thinking that, sure, it's easy for a rich family or school to talk technology, but it's not always readily accessible. Absolutely, true. Not everyone can afford a smartphone or a tablet. But the conversation shouldn't stop at how this talk of technology doesn't apply to a whole lot of people because they can't afford it. Instead, it should go a step further to discuss how technology can be made available to everyone. Organizations such as CODE and Facebook's Internet.org are working very hard to make that a reality. Sheryl Sandberg recently talked about three young girls in a village in the Philippines who had no access to formal schooling, but were learning how to read and write with the help of mobile teachers and apps on a tablet. Many schools and public libraries also make electronic devices and internet access available for free.
Further criticism relates to how too much technology is making kids obese, disconnected, or narcissistic oversharers. I think the important thing here is balance. Too much of a good thing is still too much. I read a lot, and strongly encourage kids to read, but I firmly believe that kids should also have plenty of play time outdoors and with friends. My kids entertain themselves just as well with a bunch of cardboard boxes, glue, and scissors (yeah, we still have the handmade cardboard foosball machine they made last year) or some soap, water, and dry ice or Coke and Mentos as they do with their electronic devices. We go camping several times a year, and my son happily trades his video games for chopping firewood every time. We also bring paper books on these trips because, well, batteries don't last forever. My kids love their electronics, but they also love their sports, bicycles, and social activities with friends. And they're not allowed to play with their devices at the dinner table.
Another thing to consider is how new technology has redefined what keeping in touch means. Because of FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and texting, my kids have met and become closer to cousins and friends in multiple countries and continents. While we may not be able to afford to travel a lot, technology has helped my kids learn about other people's cultures and lives as well as learn more about their family and heritage.
We also have many conversations about how what goes on the internet stays on the internet forever, how youthful indiscretions may create a virtual scarlet letter that future employers and potential voters will want to avoid, and how a predator or stalker can track you based on what you share online.
The bottom line is, technology is a tool that can be used for good or evil. Just as with any other tool, the choice of how you use it is yours. You just have to find the balance that is comfortable for your family. Because, really, no one calls the house phone anymore.
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