I'll go on the record saying that technology is amazing. I am astounded by some truly great projects that my patients and children I know have created and worked on, in large part thanks to technological advances. Communicating with children in far-off places via Skype, creating memoirs that stretch beyond the written word (e.g., using video and other media) and using multiple modalities to teach children with learning differences are all examples of this.
However, as a psychologist and expert in anxiety disorders and as a mother, some things give me pause. A real-life pause, not a "BRB."
The immediacy, unlimited access and lack of accountability in the digital age scare me. 7.5 million children under the age of 13 have Facebook accounts. The number of children who have televisions in their rooms and/or fall asleep to the television or video chatting with friends is startling. It's now fairly common for kids to multitask while doing homework -- texting, video chatting and watching TV while they work.
And we, as parents, are unfortunately modeling this behavior. If we can take one more call or respond to one more email, we do. I admit it; I do. And you know what? I find that when I say to myself, "I'll just check my phone one more time before bed," I can get sucked in and one minute becomes 20. Sitting with your child ostensibly to play or talk while multitasking with your phone, iPad or other device is not fully engaging. In fact, it models disengagement, which is dangerous, because we know that children are attuned to parents and learn how to interact with the world through their interactions with us. The nature of how we spend time with kids and how kids spend time with each other is changing, and not necessarily for the better.
I watched Louis CK on Conan the other day (admittedly on YouTube, since I have a 3-year-old and can't stay up that late -- so again, thank you, technology). The essence of what he said about smartphones was really brilliant:
They don't look at people when they talk to them and they don't build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it's 'cause they're trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, 'you're fat,' and then they see the kid's face scrunch up and they go, 'oh, that doesn't feel good to make a person do that.' But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write 'you're fat,' then they just go, 'mmm, that was fun, I like that.'
Would a kid really walk up to a peer and say, 'Go kill yourself' in person? Probably not. Sure, it's taking it to an extreme, but there are countless examples of cyberbullying that include this very message and have led to some horrible examples of things like suicide and hateful, vicious behavior.
One other thing Louis CK said really hit me: "You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person."
We want to model for our kids the ability to just be in the moment, without looking to what just happened or planning what's next. And the way to do this is to put the phone or gadget down and engage.
The message will still be there when you go back to it.