New Media Are Neither Good Nor Bad. It’s Parenting Makes It So.

Ever since I was seven, when my father compromised his stand on the new technology, by allowing a television in our house, there has been a running dialog in this country about the evils of new media. As in my father’s original stance, the central question of the conversation is usually about exposure. How much, if any, exposure should parents allow their children?

Tuesday’s publishing of new research from Common Sense Media about media use by American children ages zero to eight has caused the latest spate of controversy. Let’s take this energy and refocus it from what exposure we parents should be allowing our children to what all educators–parents and teachers alike–should be doing with our children.

To do that properly we must be reminded of the essential nature of the child. Children are hypothesis testors. When the alarm is sounded, let’s return to the question of whether or not we are treating children as budding researchers, investigators, detectives and anthropologists. Are we assisting them in the optimal development of the architecture of their brains, or are we acting as if we can shape their brains?

For instance, we can view this video of a child with a magazine

and say that his OS has been distorted by Steve Jobs or we can see this child doing what children always do with everything: forming hypotheses and then testing them in a variety of situations in the never-ending search for how the environment works and how they can make it work. This is a marvelous video of the human operating system at work as it compares a magazine to an iPAD. Steven Jobs didn’t change this child’s operating system; he simply invented a new toy.

Yes, it does alarm me that 47 percent of children eight and under have TV’s in their rooms. These are definitely not good decisions. However, when you consider how many bad decisions are made in the education of children, this one pales by comparison. Flash cards in the bathtub, testing them on academics before the third grade, treating them as passive learners rather than giving them opportunities to create, are far more damaging. These common practices and thousands more like them constitute malpractice and are pervasive.

Yes, a part of our job is to make decisions about what to expose our children to, but the vast majority of our energy should go into how we connect with them. From the lessons teachers design for them at school to the way parents converse with them at the dinner table, getting ready for school, driving in the car, welcoming friends to the home, the quality of this connection is most critical.

The web of relationships children grow up in is determinative; the toys they play with are not. Do we treat them as decision makers? Do we tell them the truth? Do we give them accurate feedback? Do we not let their mistakes and our conflicts compromise our love for them?

Let’s look again at the child in this video to remind ourselves that we have budding scientists on our hands, and let our respect for them reveal itself in treating them as if they know what they are doing.

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7 thoughts on “New Media Are Neither Good Nor Bad. It’s Parenting Makes It So.

  1. Instead of a TV, we put a CD player in our son’s room. He loves being able to take CDs (which neither my wife or I has any use for) and listen to them, and be in control of listening to music. It has increased the amount of time he spends singing and dancing. It’s also a way to recycle old technology.

    We also take great pains to limit how much television he can watch…and avoid television with advertisements as much as we possibly can.

  2. I really like this one, Rick…especially the conclusions you bolded. There is, of course, some evidence indicating our brains are affected by use of these toys, but who’s to say the changes aren’t upgrades?

    “Steven Jobs didn’t change this child’s operating system; he simply invented a new toy.”

    “The web of relationships children grow up in is determinative; the toys they play with are not. “

  3. Once again you apply wisdom & common sense to a current issue, reminding us of how kids learn and inspiring us to energize their own learning talents. Thank you Rick!

  4. This just in from Jon Bonanno:
    Kat and I are thinking this exact challenge through as it relates to Thea, as she is fascinated by the iPad, iMac and iPhone. No conclusion, but your message about our parenting role and the network of relationships which make up our family/home/friends/work associates being the most critical, not the toys, is a strong one. I would even add that our individual (Dad and Mom) emotional condition has vast impact on our children and thus it is a requirement to actively heal, expand and engage our inter-self and our emotions.

    Evelyn, at 6 months, just thinks the lights are nice and make her laugh. What joy!

  5. Ray Michaud says: “Thanks for the article on the CommonSenseMedia piece–excellent reminder of what we should be doing.”
    Ray Michaud
    John Thomas Dye School

  6. Great read Rick, thank you.

    Burn the books, burn that crazy Rock and Roll, if the grown ups didn’t love them so much we no doubt we’d be burning the iPads. Of course in the hands of children technology is a bad thing and something else we can blame if things go wrong.

    When my children do something brilliant I take credit. When they are anything but clever, polite and charming I search for the best fall guy – my husband, the brat who lives next door, Sponge Bob. What parent doesn’t hope their child’s errant behaviour is someone, or something, else’s fault?

    The same parent who, like your dad says Rick, should be monitoring exposure to anything with which our children come in contact from cold germs to tech gadgets.

    I find this anti-computer argument so confounding when I can clearly see that my kids’ time with the iPad, and all it’s cousins, proved to be an incentive to learn to read (“you can’t play that game until you can read the instructions”) to my 6 year old son discovering his passion for dancing after playing the Michael Jackson Wii game.

    From sticks and string to to the latest electronic thing kids make toys and sense and use of anything they have in their hands and as an older mom I am thrilled my two know how to text their dad or dial 911 if I should fall and cannot get up.

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