Parenting Worries – Children and Technology

In July last year, I posted this on Facebook:

I’ve only just realised the irony in posting about my worries regarding social media onto a social media site, so please don’t point that out.

I still stand by pretty much everything here, but don’t want to come across as some kind of luddite who just doesn’t “get” technology and isn’t a very cool dad (though, to be fair, I am neither of those things).

Putting aside some of the more extreme behaviours and concerns regarding phone use (Cyber bullying, making death threats or watching violence or porn), kids and mobile phones scares the living hell out of me.

There’s no hard work involved with any of it, everything is so easy and accessible. We need hard work.

Hard work is what creates amazing things.

Hard work is needed to learn complicated new ideas and skills. It’s needed to develop the patience to fail and fail again when trying to put things into practice. Nothing that comes so easy to all will ever be valuable, because anyone can get it, at any time.

The ability to knuckle down and work hard will be a desirable and profitable skill in the future.

In fact, at a time when we can all imagine a future of driverless cars, delivery drones and machines run by A.I., entry level jobs are going to become increasingly scarce. The ability to do hard and challenging work will be even more valuable, and this won’t include being able to maintain a 300 plus snap streak on Snapchat.

Aside from the comfort and ease that comes with using devices, the other aspect that I’m concerned about is that a lot of this technology provides instant gratification.

The now world famous Stanford “Marshmellow experiment” found that children who were able to control themselves, delaying gratification, went on to have higher educational scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures than those that were unable to control themselves, and took the easy option.

In short, people who can delay gratification lead better, healthier and more productive lives.

But in today’s “Attention” economy, YouTube, Disney, Netflix and Facebook are all battling to keep our self control down; to keep us on their site for as long as possible. It’s why, whenever you watch a show on Netflix or YouTube, the next episode is right the waiting afterwards.

On Autoplay. You don’t have to do anything. In fact, it’s more difficult NOT to watch the next episode, as that would require some form of action.

It gives you about ten seconds of time to have an imaginary conversation with yourself; a conversation that will invariably go like this:

“Shall I watch this next episode? No, I should really do some work. One more can’t hurt. It’s only 22 minutes without the adverts…I’ll just watch one more…”.

The next thing you know, three weeks have passed, the electricity has been cut off and your wife has left you for a management consultant called Tony.

Aside from reducing our ability to work hard and delay gratification, there’s also evidence to suggest that an over use of technology as a method to calm and distract children prevents them from developing their own internal mechanisms for dealing with emotions and decreases their language and social skill development.

If you’re having difficulty imagining what this all looks like, here’s a quick visual for you:

So, now that I’ve built up a terrible picture of kids developing into unskilled adults, craving non stop instant gratification with no moral compass or social skills to interact with the rest of the human race, what can we do?

One hope is that the economy shifts from being one of attention to one of say, contribution, or free doughnuts (I can live in hope).

Whatever the answer, it has to be about balance, rather than punishment, though how we can do that is beyond me at this moment.

I guess that, if you’re experiencing tech troubles with your teen (there’s a Channel 5 TV show title if ever there was one), you have to ask yourself what the specific risk is that you’re most worried about, and then deal with that.

It’s at this point I realise how much of a hypocrite I bloody am. When I think back as to how many times I’ve been talking with my kids and idly picked up my phone with no real purpose or intent. Or, when I’ve checked email in the middle of a conversation with the kids or when I was playing Angry Birds while our youngest was in a park.

Before I can hope that they get better, I need to be better.

I need to set limits for myself on my phone.

I need to stop texting at the dinner table.

I need to work on my own shit and get that together because I too am an instant gratification seeking, hard work avoiding, social skilled depleted numpty too – and I should know better.

[bctt tweet=”Before I can hope that they get better, I need to be better.” username=”johnholtmagic”]

Not only with setting an example of how I use my phone, but, if we truly are in an “attention” economy, I need to play the system and start providing my children with a better distraction than looking at their phone. Something worthy of their attention.

It doesn’t have to be drastic, so you can cancel the 10 day family silent meditation retreat in India…for now.

It can just be five seconds.

Here’s an idea: remember how crazy they drove you all those years ago with the incessant “why?” questions?

Payback time.

YOU become the kid. YOU constantly ask them “why?”

Make them think about things and talk to you.

Even if it’s just for five seconds. After all, a change in the right direction is a change in the right direction.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that hard. Maybe we can use the system to our advantage.

When I need to take my dog out for an early morning walk (stick with me, this is going somewhere), he’s not keen. And by “not keen”, I mean that Geoff Capes (gotta get myself some post 1983 strongman references) couldn’t prise him off the bed. He moves, he wriggles, he goes dead weight; anything, to prevent him from getting out of bed.

Well, almost anything.

If I go downstairs and rattle his dog food tin, he’s downstairs in a shot.

(Note: when it comes to sensing dog food, my dog is a bloody ninja. It is physically impossible to take the lid off his dog food box and put it on again without him sensing it. It’s like a god damn super power!)

NOW, I have his attention.

Because I gave him something worthy of his attention. Something interesting, something literally worth getting out of bed for.

Dogs…kids; it’s pretty much the same. You can push, pull, fight, yell and scream for them to do what you want (and that can work, but it’s tiring), or you can find something that is more interesting than what they’re doing now, rattle it, and watch them come to you.

Come up with things and ideas that makes them willingly leave their smartphone to one side, to not care about how many likes their new Instagram photo has got. To make them care about other things.

You can bribe them too, as long as it’s done with a sense of fun, and not punishment.

Choose things that eliminate the use of technology, so it doesn’t even arise as an issue. Go swimming. It’s very hard to get to level 237 of Candy Crush when your treading water in a pool containing 879 different urine samples.

Try stuff. It’ll be hard work and there will be no instant gratification.

And that’s the point.

Still, try stuff.

If we start using words such as a”addicted” when it comes to smartphone use, it’s easy to see how rules and regulations could be created to minimise the negative effects in the future.

How long can it be before, like cigarettes, phones come with a minimum age to purchase, or “using this product can lead to mindnumbingness of the skull and the inability to hold decent conversations or connect with other human beings” warning labels on the front, with a photo of you sat all alone, crying, on the back.

Maybe phones are the new smoking.

If it is, yelling at people and telling them why they have to stop isn’t going to work.

We need to create an environment that makes our kids want to look up and say, “Hmm, what’s going on there?”

To make themselves ask the question that Tristan Harris poses at the end of his Ted talk:

“At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time, what will be time well spent for ours?”