I continue to be delighted by the messages I receive from families who have named a summer theme. Your families are creative and inspiring. Thank you!
Another issue that has been coming up frequently in my inbox lately is the question of how to manage technology in the family. I am fascinated by technology and generally admire the advancements of our digital age. Probably most of the entertainment, communication, and information benefits of digital devices are obvious to us through our own experience. Plenty of current research, of course, points out deleterious effects of technology as well. My very favorite book on the subject is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. His presentation of brain research is highly readable and compelling; his discussion of how humans have historically interacted with their tools--and been changed by them--captivates me.
Other writers, scientists, educators, therapists, and psychologists warn parents about various dark sides of technology: "The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child," writes pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan in the Huffington Post, "has seen an increase of physical, psychological and behavior disorders that the health and education systems are just beginning to detect, much less understand." And of course there are moral issues about sexuality, bullying, and impulse control that tempt many parents to flush their children's devices down the toilet and move to Walnut Grove in a covered wagon.
My own criticism of technology focuses on the isolation it imposes on people, especially children. When it comes to thinking about the downsides of digital devices, my operative word is idiot.
Idiot, in English, has come to mean a dimwit. The word comes from the Greek idiōtēs, which can mean an ignorant person, but, more to the point, also means a private person. The root is idios: "one's own" or "private." Ancient Greeks gloried in their blooming democratic state. Although relatively few people counted as citizens, Greek democracy championed the strength of a community of ordinary citizens. "Idiosyncratic" persons wanting to function in private realms with no connection to the greater community were considered intellectually slow and regarded with suspicion.
All our handy devices run the risk of turning us into idiots in this sense, into private people who shun authentically human interpersonal engagement. Smart screens put the power of the entire Worldwide Web at the fingertips of children, and they may benefit from this. But all the pitfalls of the Internet are equally accessible to our children, whose brains are just beginning to develop the ability to control impulses. Children and teens are at a cerebral disadvantage; isolated from a mature community, they simply cannot yet overcome temptation with any consistency. They need the proverbial village to help keep them on the right track.
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, envisioned a society steeped in the teaching of Jesus Christ, a society "in which it would be easier for men to be good." Families must provide that moral community for children. Families must be a "place"--both inside and outside the home--where it is easier for children to be good. Through the family, children inherit the strength to make good choices more often.
Parents help their children make good choices more often when they set consistent guidelines for technology use. Here are some useful tips parents may consider using in their families:
- Always use devices in common areas in the home. This means no devices of any kind--ever-- in bedrooms, bathrooms, basements, etc. As the ancient Greeks understood, the more private a person becomes, the more he removes himself from society and becomes isolated, uncontributive, ignorant. As most moderns with common sense understand, sexting and other dubious uses of social media become possible only in private.
- Balance personal screen time with family time. One child I know (who may or may not be my thirteen-year-old son who regularly reads this blog) becomes monstrously grouchy after he has gorged himself for an hour on his online Lord of the Rings game. Following up some screen time with a family meal or activity or some kind of service to others establishes equilibrium.
- Round up devices every night into the parental bedroom. Our charging station is located in the master bedroom. Before bedtime, all devices get parked there, whether or not they need charging. This offers a practical benefit: no one misplaces a device, which means no frantic searching throughout the house each morning. The nightly round-up also ensures that media temptations cannot strike in the wee, private hours when the house is asleep. If my children want to sleep over at a friend's house, I talk with the parents to make sure a similar policy is embraced in their home.
- Keep current with technology. Be familiar with the social media platforms your children enjoy, and have them update you on the latest trends in apps and gadgets. Learning about the newest photo app can be fun, and it can also lead naturally to a great conversation about the purpose (and permanence) of photographs.
- Know their passwords. You could include this topic in a creepy end-of-life-issues conversation: If you die, Sweetie, we need to be able to log on to Twitter and let your followers know. Or you could explain matter-of-factly that parents want to make it easier for children to make good choices; parents who can access their children's accounts (even if they don't) serve as reminders that online actions are never actually private. Being connected to the Web implies a connection to the larger community. Parents are mature citizens of that community and should therefore not be excluded artificially.
- Empower your children to stay safe online. Ultimately, we raise our children to become free, responsible individuals. Keeping tabs on them while they are minors is just as critical as equipping them to be moral adults in their own right. The Mayo Clinic website includes these safety tips:
- Don't share personal information online.
- Don't share passwords.
- Don't get together with someone you meet online.
- Don't use texts or other tools to gossip, bully or damage someone's reputation.
- Don't text or chat on the phone while driving.
- Don't plagiarize.
- Talk to a parent or trusted adult if an interaction or message makes you uncomfortable.
- Love! Remember how pleasant it is to love and to be loved unconditionally. God offers us this kind of love every second of the day; parents do their best to imitate God. Eating family meals together, welcoming children's friends into the home, maintaining family traditions and inventing new ones, going to church together--these fundamental loving gestures remind us all to cherish community, even an imperfect one.
Each person is, as St. John Paul II liked to say, an unrepeatable human person. And at the same time, each unique person is a member of a living community. John Donne, my favorite poet of all time, combats idiocy with this famous poem:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Please comment below to share other tips--or poems--parents might enjoy.
P.S. My children's school provided these additional links to valuable resources to help keep children safe online. They are excellent. Pace yourself, though--try one or two at a sitting, then go outside and enjoy some family time!
- commonsensemedia.org Reviews resources related to digital citizenship
- aplatformforgood.org Includes best practices for parenting technology use
- safekids.com Contains information about the dangers of children using the Internet and contains rules, advice, and tips relating to security
- netbullies.com Discusses how to prevent and handle cyber bullying
- safer-internet.net Provides Internet safety information for parents and children
- pbskids.org/privacy/literacytips.html Shares "Know Before You Go" Web literacy tips for children
- pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline Discusses several resources related to technology
- netsmartz.org/netparents.htm Provides online and offline learning activities for parents to discuss Internet safety with children
- http://www.connectsafely.org - Provides resources and safety tips for parents, teens, and educators