Today, I'm thrilled to once again feature guest blogger, Lisa Lawmaster Hess.
As an avid consumer of technology and the parent of an eighteen-year-old, I can hardly remember a time when technology wasn't ubiquitous in our house. In fact, we’re so used to wireless everything that when we went to the beach a few summers ago and ended up in a condo without wireless access, we resolved never to rent that unit again. Since my husband's idea of relaxation in the evening is to watch movies, it wasn't a vacation for him without his favorite way to wind down.
But he’s an adult, capable of making both tech-centric and tech-free choices. What about our kids? When do we give them access to technology? And what technology do we give them access to?
As babies, our kids need hands-on toys -- and not hands-on in the sense of pushing a button to watch something light up on a screen. Exploring the real world and interacting with real people is an essential part of their development. Human interaction teaches infants and toddlers not just the building blocks of language, but also the nuances of communication.
Then, as toddlers, kids need to move around -- it's how they become steady on their feet, how they learn depth perception, how they develop their ability to navigate the world around them. They aren't meant to spend hours strapped into shopping carts playing with car keys and iPhones. While a little of this may be necessary so Mom doesn't lose her mind in the grocery store, a steady diet of it isn’t in the best interest of their development. Johnny may cry when Mommy takes her cell phone back and puts it in her purse, but if Mommy interacts with him, those tears will dry quickly.
Somewhere between infancy and middle school, however, things get more complicated. The line begins to blur as devices and apps become an integral part of kids' social communication and their education as well. At school, they're exposed to devices on a regular basis; tablets and iPads may even be standard issue. While this is becoming more and more commonplace, it’s not universally seen as an advantage; in some districts, parents have complained that kids are required to spend too much time on these devices.
Are they right? Or are they stunting their children's educational development?
I believe they're right. While I don't think schools should be tech free, I'm a proponent of everything -- including technology -- in moderation. Devices are tools and, as such, should operate in our service, not vice versa. When we become too dependent on technology, we lose something in the process. There's research to support the idea that when we take notes by hand, for example, we process more, we remember more, and we learn more. Just like those babies in front of the television, kids (and adults) in front of any screen become passive absorbers of information, rather than active interpreters of the world around them.
So, what technology do we give our kids, and when? As with so much else, it depends on the child and the family, but seeking balance is key. Our eyes, our brains and our bodies need a balance between electronics and the real world. A cell phone for emergencies? Great. A cell phone as a substitute for actual social interaction? Not so great. A laptop for school project? Fantastic. A laptop as an entertainment center that allows a child to stream endless hours of YouTube instead of spending time with friends and family? Not so fantastic.
Like my husband, my daughter unwinds by watching videos. Many of hers are on YouTube, which she now watches alone in her bedroom. But she's eighteen, and this chosen method of relaxation is counterbalanced by time at school, at work, and with friends and family. Dinners at our house are device-free, and if devices are part of her time with friends, they're used collectively, rather than individually -- all of them watching -- and discussing -- the same show or video. Commenting. Chatting. Laughing.
And therein lies the key. Are our kids interacting with devices, or are they interacting with people?
And if it’s always the former, how will they learn the latter?
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is a retired school counselor and adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Casting the First Stone, Chasing a Second Chance, Diverse Divorce, and Acting Assertively. She has published numerous columns and articles and blogs at The Porch Swing Chronicles.