Technology and the child

SLAVEDO NOT LET YOUR CHILD BECOME A SLAVE TO TECHNOLOGY, TEACH THEM TO MAKE TECHNOLOGY THEIR SLAVE! Given our world today and the pace with which it is moving forward and changing, this is the objective we as parents had for our children with technology and the internet, which are almost synonymous terms today.

Any innovation / invention is exciting, for the fact that it is new and can do so much more than has ever been done before. If such an invention is life changing, then it is almost always completely engaging and enticing. Thus overdoing it, over using it, being completely in its thrall, is almost the norm. I mean, look at the way the refrigerator went! 🙂 🙂 On a more serious note, witness what happened when the television first started getting its claws into the masses. I am sure no one has forgotten the TV bellies (as many still carry the curse). Check out the statistics of the sheer increase since in congenital disorders (heart, diabetes etc). The term sedentary lifestyle was coined after the television conquered the masses – no change in food habits but huge change in lifestyles witnessed by millions who became couch potatoes in front of the machine they fondly called their “tellies”. With the refrigerator at hand! The television thrall still pervades in huge parts of middle class Asia & South Asia no doubt and the competition for the better telly is still enacted in neighborhoods of not only small town Jhumri Tillaiya and Mithila, but metropolises like Mumbai and Shanghai as well. To say nothing of Saigon, where expats will pay many hundreds of US dollars to get a little box that will stream for them their favorite television programs, without watching which, they cannot have a good time at home! To say nothing at all about the beers chilling in the chillers within arms reach.

The huge changes wrought by the television 30-60 years back, depending on which country you were born in, is repeating itself with the internet revolution today. The wide open web has and continues to change the life of millions of people in ways that could not be imagined even 10 years back. Little children have more knowledge than their parents and while knowledge is power, think of that knowledge (I mean the Biblical apple eaten by Eve 🙂 ) without the experience to know what to do with that knowledge. Now into this mix throw in parents who do not have an iota of that knowledge and if they did, they do not have a clue about what to do with it, let alone being able to support their child in a way that children could handle this knowledge with the care it deserves.

Internet and the child.jpg1Nevertheless, I am not going to write about the bad impact of technology on children. A lot has been said and continues to be said about this – thanks to the very internet that it cautions against, people across the globe and tiny villages in lands we have not even heard of, are now reading about the bad effects of being enthralled by technology, in other words being addicted to it. Technology like television and money, is an easy seducer, easy to be enthralled by and in awe of. When one starts worshiping anything / anyone, it leads to a blind and unquestioning following, a chase in fact, that to my mind can only result in exhaustion, confusion and depression. Thus I am, instead, going to write about how to introduce technology to children, to guide their usage of it, such that it may enrich their lives. Hence fulfilling its raison d’être. These below recommended thoughts and actions are coming of course from my own experience in this regard and I have delineated below what worked with my children. Of course I bungled hugely, but I do not want to bore you with those, instead just share the specifics of what worked and mainly the how to.

I do not espouse keeping children away from technology. That I believe would be like keeping one’s children locked up in their room, so that they may never have any chance of being hit by a car if they went out. Technology is here to stay and seeing how it can and indeed has already, completely enrich the human race, children from the infant stage must learn to use it well. However, to my mind, the rules of how one teaches a child to swim (remember the rubber tubes, the constant vigilance before letting go), to bicycle (remember the side wheels, the supporting from the back before letting go), a teenager to drive a car (remember the staying in the front seat for many years even after child-adult gets her licence), are the rules one applies when exposing children to the internet. Overall there is one strong belief that has underlain our attitude as a family to internet usage, which all in my family agree about is that a one on one and face to face interaction, with total concentration and focus and no distractions, is a very enriching activity and can never be replaced by technology. 

So here goes, this is what worked for me and hope you all can get a few nuggets from this:

  1. If you yourself are a technology / web junkie (I myself may qualify 🙂 ), switch off completely all gadgets when interacting with your children. Make that time, mine is 30-45 minutes after they come back from school, to just converse with your child about her day and your day and share thoughts and ideas with words and eye to eye focus.
  2. Always expose the child to the most cutting edge technology (of course provided you can afford it. Yes this is an expensive buy but we would always make this acquisition either a ‘performance related bonus’ (tagging it on academic scores, a task done very well or some other personal achievement) or a special gift for a birthday. The idea was to teach the child to survive in the world today. Saving a few dollars (or Dong if you please) on a last year technology kind of reduced the reason why the technological exposure was being allowed and almost encouraged in the first place. Our view was that if we wanted to make our child ready for the future, she had to learn to master state of the art technology first, not be scared of it or of change and in fact look forward to it and embrace it. If children cruise just a tad ahead of the curve, then there is a chance that they will start innovating themselves. And say what you will, the game of tomorrow is going to be played out in the area of innovation.
  3. One qualification on point number 2 above: buying the latest technology does not mean ALL of the latest technology, it does not mean the latest mobile phone either nor does it meaning buying the latest gadgets that enter the market unthinkingly. It merely means ONE of the latest technical innovations. My children got a laptop each and the latest notebook / iPad (once in two to three years), all depending on how well they used the technology available to them. We drew a line at the mobile phones. Both my children carry the cheapest mobile phone available, mainly to communicate with their mother, who (both mine ruefully agree), needs to be in touch with them much more than anyone else in their lives 🙂 :). More than anything else, this qualification succeeded in taking away the aura of branding completely from their minds and urged them to dig deep down into themselves and gain their self-worth from themselves and their abilities, rather than from the brand they carried.
  4. Till the children are say 9-10 years old, controls like Net Nanny are recommended. However, it is likely that you have a child like mine, who at age 8 systematically dismantled every single control his father placed on his laptop and then challenged the dad to try another one!
  5. Thus what worked for us was web education, education, education. Before buying and gifting the gadget, do the groundwork. Explain clearly to your child your expectation from them when they have the gadget in possession. The dangers of the open web must be explained with the analogy of an open highway and all the dangers must be reiterated. For many of our children the school does this for us. But this does not mean that this should not be discussed at home in an as open a manner as possible and debated etc. Of course in case of toddlers, mommy and daddy have total control, so short exposures with ‘educative’ shows / games worked well with my children, but always under the aegis of one of us.
  6. Like with everything else in life, including television time, play dates, sports, Gameboys and X-Boxes, sleepovers and homework, clear rules with the use of internet must be established. The diagram below clearly elucidates the symbiotic relationship between science, society and technology. If all three (science, technology and social interaction) are used with balance and rational thought, then technology will be sure to become your child’s slave and not vice versa. Here are some rules that worked for my family: Technology and the child.jpg2
  • For infants – ‘good’ shows that edutain, handling of the latest gadget in a careful manner, are all good, in short spurts, during the day. Preferably choose one or two time-slots for this. This programs your child’s mind and there will be fewer battles later on – such as NEVER an hour before bedtime, reading a book, playing with friends etc.
  • No technology on the meal table. EVER. Period. No discussion and non negotiable. Actually same was true of books as well and television at meal times. NEVER. ALL TABOO 😮 My children fine honed their conversation skill during meal times.
  • No technology for at least 30 minutes before going to bed. This was a very hard one I have to admit and was the cause of many a heated discussion and sometimes even huge scolding (I am saying this tongue in cheek, as voices were raised at times, much to my husband’s chagrin, who ABHORS raised voices – I believe it is a cultural thing 🙂 🙂 ) matches.
  • Innocent before being declared guilty. Always. I discuss, debate, give knowledge, guide on how to use that knowledge, disseminate the value systems that also help guide that knowledge to the right usage, but I am NOT A POLICEMAN. I trust my child to keep word, just as I do. So if I do catch my child playing computer games when they should not have been, then there is one and then the second warning. Thereafter grounding rules apply. And like with everything else, following through with the cause and effect is a parent’s job after all.
  • Discussions about the dangers when on the open web on the dining table, what to watch out for, how and what specifically can make the open web a dangerous place, generating discussion about the specific dangers faced really helped hugely with handling this technology business in my home. Somehow I was always the culprit and the children and husband continue to make fun of my gullibility. Moreover, I realized that having a scapegoat was working as a good real life example of how easy it was to be silly when using the web. Thus I would highlight all my mistakes (especially when my children were younger) and allow it to be dramatized more than necessary, as it was all for a good cause.
  • Research and all the data that is constantly and instantly available via the web about the ills of the web, were accessed and discussed. Number of hours of sleep required for best learning, technology before bed leading to very bad sleep cycles, exposure to illicit material on the web such as porn, dark arts, horrific crime and child abuse was and is continually openly discussed in our household. The reasons why all these are not value adding (I learned early on in my children’s growing years never to say “good” as it was never cool) and why and how to avoid all of these have always been openly discussed as well. Thus clear expectations and value systems were established.
  • As parents we have never made a big deal about having the access to the web in the living area and not in the children’s rooms because early on my husband and I realized that this was more a matter of trust. My children are used to accessing the web in their respective rooms and we trust them to do the right thing. Neither my husband nor I have ever popped into our children’s rooms to peer into their laptops either. To date, I have not had cause to regret our this decision.
  • Cyber bullying is a big issue with all adolescents and teenagers. This was and continues to be the most important topic of discussion in my family. This links back to general self-worth of the child and if it is manifested here in the form of either her being bullied or doing the bullying, then it is a symptom of a deeper and separate malaise. Technology and the web are not the cause I believe, it is merely a very sharp and dangerous conduit of the malaise. Thus merely removing technology and web from the child’s life, to my mind, cannot cure this malaise.
  • Social networking on the web has never been taboo in my home either. I have never banned my children from it because I believe that it is important that my children learn to communicate well on the web. What personal material to put on the web, how to brand themselves and nurture their social image is to my mind a life skill, as important as learning how to swim and drive and manage money.
  • If your child is always sitting with her notebook or iPad, then check what she is doing with it – reading a magazine / book, learning Math, exploring science, researching History topics or playing Angry Birds. If it is only gaming, then there may be an issue. If there is only technology, then there is definitely an issue.

Internet and the child5.  Any new gadget (iPad, iPad mini, iPod, laptop, notebook etc) purchased was always gifted with the idea that it must add value to our children’s lives. How this gadget could add value was also clearly delineated. For example yearly subscriptions for great thought-provoking and current affairs updating magazines were purchased and spot quizzes about the articles were run on the dining table after a few days. The gadget was also explored for all its uses, mini presentations, art work, project solutions and so on. Thus if the gadget was being used mindlessly (silly games, social networking all the time etc), this was always severely looked down upon, was labeled with terms my children hated such as silly ordinary teenagers, a follower, donkey, brainless and more in similar vein – am sure you get the drift. Grounding the child from using the gadget was used only as an underlying threat and honestly I have never had to follow through with this one.

6. Going out to play, play dates and sleep overs, sports, music, art and academics (Maths with and without a calculator) has all to be in an equally balanced household for technology to be used in the best way possible. Technology should be allowed to answer every single question there is on earth, a digi-dictionary used when playing scrabble, research to be done on different types of topics / subjects), digi-scales and converters in the kitchen when baking should be encouraged, when discussion nutrition of ingredients all kinds of research must be done as a family, on holiday for maps and routes and language translations and historical information and so on. But technology must be put away when communicating on a one on one – at a theater / show, on the dining table, in the bedroom 30 minutes before going to bed (if not more), at a restaurant, outdoor activities as a group / family etc.

7. Learning from my children. Though I am listing this last, I cannot overstate how important this aspect is to nurturing the best relationship between technology and the child. As a parent, let us face it, we are all going to be far more technically challenged than our children will ever be. Yet we adults (especially mothers who are not working in this field) need to be somewhere close to where our children are with technology and the web, to be able to guide them and course correct if required. If we are not, we will not have a clue about where are children are at and unfortunately like in any relationship (however loving) some amount of disregard does creep in when there is a gap in skill levels. So if you want your children to listen to you (or at least have a sensible conversation with you) with regard to this subject, you need to be a somewhat savvy user of the web yourself and keep abreast of the latest technology. And remember, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; so if you are constantly only social networking on the web, you cannot expect your child not to!

So here it is. This above is what worked for my family and continues to do so. Of course there is no formula. What works for one might not work for another, so course correction as you go on and trying different ways, is the only way forward.

Finally, the most important learning for me from my own life experience on this subject has been that constant guidance and education with regard to the ‘best practices’ with technology and web usage is required and conversations about this must be ongoing. Moreover, other activities which counter balance the thrall that technology can apply on any idle mind, must be given continuous importance in the daily life of the child. Taking away technology completely or letting the child indulge in it without thought, are both easy to do and a sure-fire way of seeing your child become a slave of technology.

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