by Janet Glass
“Mommy, iPad,” I heard a toddler say while on a red -eye flight to San Francisco. I woke up and I looked her way. She was maybe a year and a half, not yet speaking in full sentences. Her mom was eager to go back to sleep. She pulled the iPad mini out of her bag, turned it on and handed it over. If I had had any doubt before, this confirmed that we are raising kids in uncharted waters. I thought my experience as a parent of two daughters should be a solid touchstone for how to help raise my grandson, Max. After all, I’m more patient now, and I have a bigger bag of tricks to engage a two and a half year old.
Children and Screens
One advantage experience hasn’t brought me is raising kids in the wired world. It requires a new sort of awareness. As a young parent, I used to look forward to a break, and I would turn on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Now, when Max gets super cranky, I give him the iPad to play Little Builder. With a touch screen, it’s not that hard for him to move from Little Builder to YouTube videos. Do we sit and watch to monitor every move? Do we keep them away from screens altogether? Can we? That may mean keeping them away from their cousins, playmates and neighbors. At what age do we allow which screens? For sure, Max will be using computers at school fairly soon. In the school where I taught, second graders presented their stories on PowerPoint, enhanced by their own pictures. When Max can’t find his Dusty Crophopper plane, he asks me to text his mom to see if she knows where it is. When he has a question about the world, I Google it. He visits with his great grandma, who lives in Florida, by Skype, where he routinely sees my mom on the screen and shows her his latest toy. He expects to be able to connect with anyone at any time. Max and his family are not unique in this, but it’s a significant cultural shift in terms of a child’s perspective.
Challenges to Healthy and Wholesome
It’s no secret that are fewer boundaries in terms of interactions these days. However, with children this can be both wonderful and very worrisome. We want to protect our kids from seeing harmful things that they will not be able to delete from their minds. We want wholesome. We want to be sure they don’t waste their time, to save them from excessive distraction. We want focused. We want to shield them from the dangers of backlit tablets, now linked to problems with solid sleep if used near bedtime (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/249402.php). We want healthy. We want our kids to be able to socialize face to face, enjoy nature without feeling compelled to film it, play outside, and maybe play the cello. We want well-rounded. We want them to think deep, original thoughts arrived at through sustained reading. We want them to be able to pause and reflect. Flitting from one screen to another makes it harder. Yet we also wish our kids to enjoy the advantages of playing, creating and collaborating with their friends and classmates. This now means electronic devices. Their friends, family, teachers and classmates may sustain their relationships through cable, Ethernet and satellite systems. There’s no turning back, and while there are thousands of opinions written in blogs, there are no prior models for how to parent in this age. As virtual reality becomes more and more a part of our learning experiences, the walls dissolve between real and digital reality. Take practicing a foreign language. In the virtual world of Second Life, your avatar visits a section where natives speak the language you’re learning. In another language, you buy a snack from a vendor, chat with a customer, and ask for directions, all without getting off your couch.
Living Ethically in Two Worlds
One thing we can do is to admit that childhood is now different, and we need to talk about it with other parents. Having an Ethical Culture Sunday school that provides us with a community of like-minded caretakers is a help. Parents and grandparents can air our anxieties and brainstorm with each other. Children’s online activities and digital footprints can be monitored and blocked to some extent with spying and filtering software. This may not seem compatible with Ethical Culture’s call to respect the dignity of the individual. But we also know that different developmental stages require different conditions in order to bring out the best in our children. To that end, many parents set time limits and make choices of games and programs as a family. With research and discussion, it can result in, say, buying Minecraft over Grand Theft Auto. Can we fully control what our kids stumble into, what vile hate speech they hear, what perverted videos they may see, what salacious invitations they may receive? Well, we can perhaps try to insulate them by open dialogue, early and often, about what is healthy to feed our minds. We might talk about how to model the kindness and decency we foster in our physical lives and carry those values into our digital lives We could emphasize that being anonymous is an illusion and that bullying, nastiness and indecency are just as egregious online as off. As our digital world begins to feel more and more the same as real life, we might insist that the same rules should apply. Faced with iChildhood, we have no pat formulas. However, the guidelines for living an ethical life have never been more important as we expand our minds to include life also lived in virtual reality.