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If I say the words “parenting” and “screen time,” what is your first association?
You’ve read the studies: Exposing our kids to media too soon and too often will make them violent, narcissistic, and fat. They’ll be hopelessly warped by nude Snapchatting, and their gross motor skills will be fatally shot by the age of 5 as they slump, swiping and tapping away.
Plopping your kid in front of the tube for a few minutes of alone time is, at best, a minor indulgence for which we reflexively apologize. It’s a little like drinking: Do it at 5 PM while you’re cooking dinner, or on weekends or holidays, and no one bats an eye, but do it several times a day or start before noon and you may have a problem.
There’s another side to the story that we don’t talk about enough. How screens can bring us and our children together. The moments of pure, shared joy, discovery, and connection across the room or across great distances.
I feel it with my 4-year-old daughter when we go on an impromptu image-search adventure to learn about volcanoes or Roman aqueducts or the human heart. Or last night, when my parents, hundreds of miles away, read to her from Alice in Wonderland over video chat before bedtime while we acted out the dodo’s race.
“Much of our shared playtime consists of an ongoing long-form improvisation in which we walk around the house doing regular stuff while interacting as characters from movies,” writes Slate film critic Dana Stevens of her 9-year-old daughter. She explains how sharing movies like The Wizard of Oz and 101 Dalmations with her daughter has informed and expanded her own work. “Watching P. grow into a very different kind of watcher than I am — less passive and analytic, more collaborative and engaged — has been a welcome stripping away of my own viewing habits and assumptions.”
In a 2011 book of essays, sci-fi writer and journalist Cory Doctorow writes about telling his 2-year-old daughter, Poesy, the story of Jack and the Beanstalk with the assistance of a Flickr search to convey the general ideas of a harp, a goose, and a giant and various YouTube videos with different versions of the giant’s chant. Then they acted it out with homemade props.
“I think we’re evolving something that’s really working for us — a mix of technology, storytelling, play, and (admittedly) a little electronic babysitting that lets me get to at least some of my email before breakfast time,” Doctorow wrote. “The laptop play we’ve stumbled on feels right. It’s not passive, mesmerized, isolated TV watching. Instead, it’s a shared experience that involves lots of imagination, physically running around the house (screeching with laughter, no less!), and mixing up story-worlds, the real world, and play.”
In June 2015 The New Yorker ran cover art by graphic novelist Chris Ware showing a postmodern playdate. Outside the window, a swing set stands empty in an idyllic grassy backyard on a beautiful sunny day. Inside, 2 girls sit back-to-back at separate screens that show their avatars interacting in the world of Minecraft, the video game.
Plopping your kid in front of the tube for a few minutes of alone time is, at best, a minor indulgence for which we reflexively apologize.
But this wasn’t a dystopian vision. Minecraft has about 100 million registered users and a cult following among educators who see it as one of the purest possible instantiations of “constructivism,” an educational philosophy that extols the virtues of learning by doing. It’s an infinite sandbox that enables children to build their own worlds and make up the rules as they go along.
Ware wrote for the New Yorker blog that his 10-year-old daughter, Clara, loves the game, and clearly, he loves watching her play.
“Clara has spent hours, days, weeks of the past 2 years building and making navigable block worlds fueled from the spun-off fizz of her accreting consciousness: giant ice-cream-layered auditoriums linked to narrow 50-foot-high hallways over glass-covered lava streams, stairs that descend to underground classrooms, frozen floating wingless airplanes, and my favorite, the tasteful redwood-and-glass ‘writer’s retreat.’ (It has a small pool.)” You can picture the artist and his daughter, hunched companionably over neighboring screens, happily sketching away.
The truth is that we and our children ultimately want parallel things from technology. We want to be informed and entertained, not lulled. To be engaged, not bored. To be connected, not disconnected. To consume and to create. We seek joy, not just the completion of tasks or momentary distraction from the unbearable, mundane, and day-to-day.
Collectively, our civilization is currently experiencing what Carl Sagan called a technological adolescence, and it’s a rocky one. Virtual realities and mobile connectedness seem to be intruding everywhere and threatening what’s most human about us. Commercial interests overwhelm any sense of a public sphere. “Personalization” overwhelms the personal. Your attention is the prize; eyeballs are the money.
Of course I worry about what my daughter’s getting exposed to, from Disney princesses with waists smaller than their heads to racial and ethnic stereotypes. It freaks me out that the “iPad station” is her favorite activity at pre-K, and I wonder what she’s really learning.
But children have always shown humanity how to adapt. They bring out our greatest love and concern, our most visceral empathy, even as they reawaken our curiosity and sense of wonder. These are precisely the superpowers we need to fight the robot army and construct a more humane digital world.
I want to propose that we create a new vision of positive parenting with technology, not against it.
Anya Kamenetz is is an American writer living in Brooklyn, New York City. She is lead education blogger at NPR, a former staff writer for Fast Company magazine, and a columnist for Tribune Media Services.