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Deborah Schoeberlein

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How Digital Media Has Changed Parenting

Posted: 08/18/10 08:00 AM ET

Many parents have a love-hate relationship with digital media designed for kids. Love, because we love when electronics babysit. Hate, because we only want babysitting some of the time.

Every generation has its seductions, and today's teens along with some youthful adults are smitten with the fast paced, incredibly compelling virtual technology. Why not? The visuals are gorgeous, the action is nonstop and yes, well, the escape from conventional reality is pretty much instantaneous. I'm no gamer, but my kids are ... and I can understand why.

On the other hand, there are some common problems associated with youthful gaming. There's the issue of reality -- as in, do they really know which world they inhabit at any given time? Then there's the issue of balance: do they enjoy other activities as well as the games? Of course, social skills development is another concern. I mean, how do you learn to communicate when the give-and-take isn't human on both sides? And then there's the vast disturbing set of issues related to the incredibly violent, sexualized, inhuman content of some games (but I'll save that for another HP posting).

But, to my mind, attention is the crux of the problem, and attention is about power. After all, what do the entertainment and advertising industries want more than anything? Our attention. And, what do parents want? We want our kids to pay attention to what we value -- and of course -- to us. It's part of our job as parents.

The problem is that when kids are plugged in, they're pulled out of the present. They don't hear us, as in "honey, please set the table." They don't notice their environment, as in "it's a glorious day, go outside." And, often, they don't realize they aren't in control of their own minds, as in "but the game is so good, I just got sucked in." Yeah, right.

Raw power struggles tend to work out badly, and so we need to respond to this issue skillfully and consistently. We need to hold kids accountable so that they hear us (and other people) and can communicate like civilized beings (maybe even connect with being civilized beings). The demands of virtual reality do not exempt kids from real life chores. Nor does communication with avatars replace the spontaneous interaction with other human beings or even animals (like the family pet). And, as the August 16th lead story in the New York Times explains, they (we) need down-time, in nature, away from all electronics.

Furthermore, we need to help our kids become aware of their own attention. The goal is to help them recognize that "yes, the game is totally awesome" and "conventional reality is cool, too." This is totally doable, and the ability to notice what's happening in and around you, simultaneously, is called mindfulness. With practice, the mind learns to pay attention to paying attention. But, as with anything, mindfulness requires focus and effort ... just a little purposeful practice, every day.

Back to the gaming. Maybe the thing that most aggravates parents is competing with digital media for the prize of our kids' attention. Yes, kids need to learn how to switch their attention from one world to another, and be able to attend to us as well as their own minds. But, we too, need to take a hard look at our issues with gaming, and recognize that our disdain for the games may not always be altruistic, and sometimes it's just a foil for our own smarting egos.

After all, I imagine most parents have fallen back on using digital media to capture and hold our kids' attention when it suited our purposes. You know, "Let's let the kids watch a movie so we can have some adult conversation." I've done it. Haven't you? And, what did we teach them then? That there are times when it's OK to plug in --when it suits our own purposes. Over time, that realization morphs into their realization that it's OK to plug in when it suits their purposes. In both cases, gaming can be healthy, but only if we -- kids and parents alike -- own our intentions and take responsibility for our actions.

Like our kids, we need to develop awareness and gain control over the focus of our attention. We need to train our minds to see what's really happening, and not simplistically blame the games -- or the users. Gaming is seductive and escapism has its place, but real life always has an edge, if we're willing to risk being truly alive. If we want our kids to thrive in this reality, we've got to engage with them. That's the only way to teach kids how to live in the here-and-now.