THE BLOG
11/04/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Furthering the Conversation: Our Kids and Digital Media

Even though it is one of the key values of a democracy to vote, Election Day, this coming Tuesday, becomes a perilous situation when many of us have been so bombarded by manipulations, begging and warnings, that it is hard for some to know what might be their best decision. That takes being able to weigh advice in the safety of knowing we have clear information and the freedom to discuss our views without feeling we are bending to constant pressure. What, then, are our kids thinking and feeling, and what are their lives like in terms of impact of the general bombardment of advertising and instant messaging they receive via digital media in general. And what might they be thinking and/or feeling, watching an adult world where manipulation so outweighs a more careful processing of facts and feelings most of the time.

We have long heard concerns regarding prolonged exposure to television programming and digital involvement in general as potentially detrimental to our kids. Although, it often seems that digital media is so the status quo there seems little to be done about it. The new book, Parenting for the Digital Age, by Bill Ratner, is not completely novel in its content but it doesn't have to be: it is a good place to start or continue the discussion, in particular for families where there is already some degree of productive communication between adults and with the children involved.

Mr. Ratner has had a long career as a prominent "voice over" professional whose voice is in fact, rather instantly recognizable. He has announced for national news stations and been the voice for a variety of familiar characters. In some ways writing to give back, Ratner wrote this book out of his passion for interrupting the damaging effects of indiscriminate and even addictive use of digital media. He loves the media he criticizes but he is criticizing the excesses, not the whole package.

Something the reader of Parenting for the Digital Age will find refreshing is that no way is Ratner a spreader of hysterical fears or disaster scenarios vis a vis media involvement, though he is very aware of the risks which include bullying on Facebook as one example. In addition one of his key passions is helping people begin to think critically, to begin to know that messages can be false. He describes television, which he also clearly loves, as "satanically brilliant", giving way to the manipulation that if "people speak something, well, it's true". As part of his mission, he has a growing practice of educating kids about the dynamics of advertising and about how to get more discerning about seeing when manipulation exists and learning how to make better judgments as a result of this questioning.

This book includes some very good suggestions for parents monitoring their children's online life though he agrees with my concern that most of the suggestions stated here, depend on stable and resilient relationships to begin with. In the spirit of being a part of the larger conversation, he says if he were writing the book now he might suggest family therapy opportunities for people without relationship tools or with very significant conflicts. But then again this book was not meant to cover all bases and as such can be used as a jumping off point. In fact, although this is described as a how to book, Mr. Ratner has no intention of having the last word on this vast and complicated subject; rather he wants to open up or be part of an ongoing conversation.

Ratner is liberal with his use of personal examples, revealing a very warm if sometimes strict household -- especially when it comes to having set clear limits on the use of cell phones as one example. While Ratner might himself seem to have a full fledged blessed life with easy going sets of relationships from beginning to end, in truth his background is one of early orphanhood. His mother died of breast cancer when he was seven years old and his father of a heart attack when he was thirteen, the same year his brother died of a congenital illness. Even though it is clear that he so treasures his life with his present family as something of a rebirth of opportunities for loving, it is also clear that his life has very much known its dark sides, which he is writing about in his work in progress, "Voices in my Head: a Life", a memoir. And a propos of voices, which in this case are not schizophrenic voices, Ratner is clear, his experience is one of having had the presence of television voices from early in his life. He has in fact built over the years on a rich set of traditions, sharing his capacity for storytelling and what seems like a veritable love of it; he also finds storytelling a rich alternative to the passive watching of digital media, for families and children as well.

The well-rounded and vast enthusiasm and curiosity about life of Bill Ratner the human being and continuous learner and seeker, lends to a very warm and up flavor of this book. For me, the darker sides to come from his future writing, are perhaps even more intriguing than this present effort, even though I encourage it as informative and provocative. He brings here, and no doubt will in his memoir as well, a voice -- perhaps one of many -- that wants, not so much to preach or be heard, as to share -- something of which we seem to need a great deal more.