Everybody's Talkin' Technology

I was late to my usual speed walk the other morning.  A good thing, as all of the children of my  neighborhood were out and about, in NYC’s Riverside Park, doing their stuff in the clear autumn air.  A group of squirming elementary school kids gathered in a field, huddled with their teacher, ready to begin a soccer game.  A toddler pushed a swing she could barely reach, enjoying her power and mastery.  A baby sat in her stroller, drinking in the world of dogs, people, birds, and changing colors.  The common denominator, with the exception of the school-aged group: each caregiver—mom, nanny, au pair—had ear glued to a phone, or fingers tapping away, lifelines to the outside world.

As I left the park, I noticed a gorgeous, curly-haired girl, sprawled on a bench, in deep conversation.  She was talking to her father, keenly focused on his daughter, who had just lobbed a question her way.

Before I say another word, I have to ‘fess up to my own zealotry about our grand obsession with screens and increasingly mobile social media.   If you’ve been hanging out in this space, you might know that I reared my own kids on a zero tolerance media policy.   Right before my first child was born, in a fit of pique with the cable company, his father and I ditched our TV set, condemning our son to an early childhood without Sesame Street. By the time his sister came along, six years later, we still were screen-free—with the occasional lapse at the homes of plugged-in friends and family—until our household was divided, and a VCR player appeared in dad’s house.  But that was the age of innocence—pre-clicking, typing, texting, downloading, iPhone messaging, friending, web-surfing, pod-casting.  And, truth be told, my renegade status had “self-righteous” written all over it.

I’ve been evolving lately, led, a bit reluctantly, by my colleague, Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative.  Her book, Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child, re-released this past spring, is a thoughtful, well-researched, compelling and soul-baring journey through the minefields of our brave, new world.  As Lisa scanned the rapidly changing and ubiquitous landscape of screen media, she veered away from the question of quantity—it’s now a fact of life for the nation’s young children—focusing, instead, on what she calls the three Cs: content, context, and your child.   Her review of the research is lucid and informative, and ultimately, unfinished, as cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists, she writes, “are only starting to uncover the holes in their understanding of how very young children are affected by media,” and “debates are already raging on how to interpret what we know so far.”

Like all of you, I’ll be following this conversation closely.  And I’d like to add a couple of other questions, which Lisa addresses, implicitly and explicitly, but still need much more exploration:  How is the use of “screen time” by adults affecting young children’s development?  Their acquisition of language?  Their sense of self with others?  Their driving need, as the late psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner once said, to have someone who’s really crazy about them?

I’m not casting stones here.  Though my kids are now grown, I will never forget the isolation of those early years of child rearing.  Umbilical cords to the world outside are critical.  Distraction is not a dirty word, and parents certainly don’t need any more guilt.  But as we all become more addicted to technology’s toys, players in this amazing revolution, we need to give some serious thought to these questions, which go to the very heart of teaching, learning, and, ultimately, our humanity.

Caption: A still photograph from Spirit Ship, a short film by Kristin B. Eno, which showcases the original stories children make up as they go along their journeys, both real and imagined.

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1 comment to Everybody’s Talkin’ Technology

  • Susan, Thanks so much for featuring an image from Spirit Ship. You’ve touched upon two signposts of my life right now: the troubling isolation of parenting very young children, and the complex conversation that follows us if we’ve decided not to allow any screen time. How hard it is to keep a three-year-old occupied without the crutch of TV/video to break up the day! How scary it is to see ourselves become hypocrites (ie: I can have an internet addiction, and I’ve been guilty of “device distraction,” but I won’t allow my daughter to watch TV or use my smart phone?)! How easy it is to become self-righteous (ie: why did I use the word “crutch”)! And yet as we know, the stakes are high. I own an older copy, so I’m interested to take a look at the new edition of Guernsey’s book. Unfortunately I had never finished the book because I was multitasking between it and ten other books on children and the media. But what results from multitasking as a way of life (which includes keeping a smart phone a bit too close) while parenting two young children? One shutters to think. It’s painful to see how my flailing attempts to grasp for some semblance of the old life unfettered by nursing, nap and playground schedules, my attempts to break off a few too many moments for myself, have adversely affected the ones I claim to love to the moon and back. Dealing with these questions you raise is so crucial to being a better parent and teacher and filmmaker. Thank you for your eloquent appeal. I am taking it to heart.

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