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January 20, 2010

My Kids Are Awake With Access to Tech, But Pretend Play Is Still King

Kids-technologyThis morning I opened up the New York Times and read the article by Tamar Lewin called "If Your Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online". Later I saw the New York Times article had made it to Techmeme.

While reading the article I took a moment to look at what my kids were doing. Were my kids using any technology this morning?

So I decided to review the morning's activities: After my 10 year old and twin 6 year old boyBoys-pillow-fights ate breakfast, they went into our living room (affectionately called the "bouncy room" because sofa pillows are used for forts and jumping) for some pretend play before school. They had rolled up paper for swords and were pretending to fend off the "bad guys". A few nerf guns sneaked their way in, but had no bullets so they ended up being a prop as well. When it is was time to leave, my boys put on their little yellow rain boots and rain jackets and went to school.

All of this "pretend play" happened in our house that is full of technology. We have multiple laptops including my 10 year old that has his own laptop, iPod and Nintendo DSi. My twin 6 year olds have Leapfrog moblie gaming units and their older brother's hand me down Nintendo DS's. The TV in our family room may be 10 years old, but it still works great. We have Direct TV DVR's and a Nintendo Wii. We have multiple Nintendo racing, sports and Mario Bros Wii games with lots of accessories and just recently purchased the Tony Hawk Thride game and accessory board. My 10 year old has a simple cell phone that is "Pay as you Go" with no data plan but ample calling and texting. His friends have the Sony Playstation and they enjoy playing Lego Star Wars. We only have one TV in our family room, but multiple computer screens in our house.

The New York Times article "If Your Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online" brought up some very interesting discussion points about how much time kids are spending on technology each day:

"The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted.

The article went on to explain "The study could not say whether the media use causes problems, or, rather, whether troubled youths turn to heavy media use".   

Donald F. Roberts, a Stanford communications professor emeritus is also one of the authors of the study. "The report is based on a survey of more than 2,000 students in grades 3 to 12 that was conducted from October 2008 to May 2009."

As a mom and a technologist, I want to give my opinion to the question of whether it is the media that causes the problems or heavy media use reflects other problems. I don't have any scientific studies to quote from, just my own experience and information from talking to as many kids as possible for my own mission to understand kids and technology.

I have three boys that when first introduced to any new technology are fascinated and could spend lots of time on it. I believe kids are wired to be fascinated by technology and they will always find new ways to use that adults could not imagine. But what has kept our technology use to be just one of the many activities we do - including outside play, pretend play, projects and sports - is simple house rules. Our kids know when they are allowed to use technology and when technology needs to be shut off. And that is that. They understand screen time is screen time and they need to choose it wisely. I do see with my 10 year old that he is more drawn to using his laptop for video and web surfing then my 6 year olds are, but he also realizes that he has limits and will turn it off to read his Hardy Boys collection (his goal is to read EVERY Hardy Boys book he can get his hands on and his closet is full of them!). We also have logical consequences if the rules are broken (yes - we have had to take our older son's laptop away on occasion). When my son first got his phone he made some mistakes - so we took his phone away for one month. Now he has learned from his mistakes and prides himself on following the rules. 

Implementing technology rules in our household has not been a perfect process and as we introduce more technology into our household- I do see less pretend play. But we also have a nice balance. I have as many skateboards, scooters, bikes and sports accessories as I do gaming accessories. When the weather is appropriate the boys enjoy outside play. Using "if you can't beat 'em them join 'em strategy" - we signed our 10 year old up for programming classes so he can create his own video games and programs.

As I was quoted saying in Laptop Magazine: "Technology is the new sex talk". Technology and Internet  use is a serious subject, every parent needs to educate themselves and their kids to keep them safe. Many kids will be drawn to technology so it is important for parents to set limits and provide for alternative play/outside time.

The biggest challenge I see is that families have become isolated and many parents have no choice but to work many hours - so kids spend more time in the house. The old saying of "kick your kids outside" until dinner is something we can't say anymore; "outside" is not safe for kids anymore. It is expensive and very hard for many parents to sign up for after school activities for their kids. I personally noticed that I need to "drive" my kids to many of their after school activities, some of the sports leagues require almost a 30 minute drive in rush hour traffic!

Instead of blaming technology, I say we blame society for not being a safe place for kids and not having enough after school options for kids. I would like to see more resources to help parents (especially working parents) break out of the isolation and have a safe place for kids to play outside of the home as well. One suggestion is having more after school activities at schools. To enable those programs, how about Federal subsidies for after school programs so more are available (and will include transportation)?   Our local skate parks are so crowded that it is hard to bring my 10 year old - so how about also raising money to have local skate parks in every area? The Tony Hawk foundation was set up just to do so. I would like to see other foundations set up to provide safe after school activities for kids.

In my kids' school, there are huge waiting lists for after school programs that go until 5pm and not many options. As a working parent, I had months of stress trying to find the right after school programs for my 3 boys.

To answer the question of "whether the media use causes problems, or, rather, whether troubled youths turn to heavy media use" - this is what I have to say: Give a kid access to a range of activities and their technology will just be one of the things they use, not the main source of entertainment. Embrace kid's fascination with technology and help them understand the dangers and the positive ways they can use it. Parents should spend time with their kids while they are using technology and understand it for themselves. Families should set screen time rules and logical consequences for when the rules are broken. Let kids enjoy video games within the limits of screen time, but leave out the violent video games such as "Grand Theft Auto" .

Of course, as a mom obsessed with technology and social media, I may need to be the one that needs a technology time out...


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Really interesting post. I'm also a mom who works in technology. My kids are 3 and 6, and we also have numerous electronic devices that they love to play with. Recently my 3 year old has become quite taken with playing computer games, and when I watch his little finger clicking the mousepad on my laptop I feel a wide range of emotions. Proud of how he has figured out how to play on his own, uncomfortable that such a little guy is already fascinated with the computer, happy that I may get an extra 15 minutes to get my own stuff done while he plays, guilty for that last one.
Today it seems like a lot of parents use technology as a babysitter to occupy their kids. I understand - I work full time and sometimes do that myself. I try to limit screen time, and get my stuff done while they're online, and then make an effort to spend time doing non-screen stuff with them the rest of the time. I've been reading how unstructured play in a natural setting is really good for kids so I send them outside whenever possible. It is hard - like you said it's not safe to just send your kids out so it has to be a time when I can go out with them, or at least watch them from the kitchen (which has a door straight to the backyard).
BTW - I love the picture of your boys playing - that's hilarious!

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