Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kids and Technology

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who treat technology like a tool to be manipulated and used to accomplish their goals, and those who treat it like a ticking time bomb, who are afraid to make any sudden moves for fear that it will send them into the beyond.

My husband and I are both software engineers who grew up with some of the earliest personal computers in our homes. For us, tech is a tool, much like a whisk or a hammer or a pencil. We are not afraid to use it, to occasionally abuse it, to remake it or rework it into something useful or necessary or entertaining. After all, that's what we are paid to do.

Our kids see us on the computer, on our phones, wiring up speakers and game consoles and MP3 players. Their father likes to mod computers, adding water cooling or lights and fans and paint and who knows what else. I'm more likely to be updating a website, creating craft projects in Photoshop or Acrobat, or sorting my ebook collection in Calibre. I think that our kids, too, treat technology as a toolset that they can pull from to solve life's challenges.

But lately, I keep hearing from other parents who are both appalled at the amount of technology that "kids these days" use. They want to limit the use of phones, gaming consoles, tablets, and so on. "Screen time". They say it isn't healthy.

Funny, some of the same people type as though each key contains a syringe, ready to draw blood. They call the Geek Squad every time they need to find a file on the hard drive because they aren't brave enough to start clicking on those little folder icons for fear they will break something. The are horrified and awed when I demonstrate how few clicks with the phone it takes to google a product, find a store that carries it, and pass the store address to the GPS navigation program which begins giving verbal directions on how to get there. How I can stand in one store, scan a barcode on a toy, and see who has it on sale (and sometimes go ahead and order, right there in the store, before I move on to the next aisle).

I was reading a blog post just now where a thirty-something mother mentioned being appalled that a three-year old was proficient at playing games on an iPhone. When my son was three, he liked to use my phone to take pictures and post them to FaceBook, and could dial or text his grandmother by finding her picture in the contact list (his texts were always something like zxxcvyyy but he frequently spelled out his name at the end). His Speech Therapy teacher uses games on an iPad in parts of their one-on-one sessions. Both of our kids have been allowed to play educational games from the time they could hold a mouse or a Leapster.

Not all technology is "screen time". When my 7-year old daughter wants to spend three hours on the computer watching tv show recordings, then yes, it is screen time. But I've given her hours on end to spend researching green sea turtles for school, and taught her how to save bits of text and photos with Microsoft's One Note that she later sorted and re-arranged to help design a poster and write paragraphs. When my son takes pictures and send them to people, he isn't just dumbly sitting and watching some inanimate object entertain him. He is using the information, synthesizing, coming up with new applications for it. This is exactly the sort of time, experience, and play that we should be encouraging our children to do. They need to learn not only to navigate devices, but to come up with new uses for them.

I want to teach my kids to program. I think I was around second or third grade when I found my dad's book on TI Basic for our ancient (Atari-era) computer and began drawing hearts and flowers on the screen with code. Charlotte is plenty old enough. Trystan needs a bit more reading, but he is already a creative problem solver.

People of all ages need to stop fearing technology. Start reading the manuals. Start pushing the buttons. Figure out what works, what doesn't, what you can do with something, why you might want to do it. And parents should stop being afraid to let their kids explore. Like with every other aspect of their growth, give them a safe, controlled environment to start (i.e. don't hand over an unlocked phone where the kid can spend hundreds of $ and spam your boss with photos in moments). This is no different than teaching them to tumble on a gym mat instead of concrete, or to wear a helmut when on their bike. But as the kids grow, make sure their virtual playgrounds grow with them. Sure, control the couch-potato aspects of their technology time, but encourage the creative problem-solving.

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