Do you ever feel that technology has become too much of a part of your child’s lifeor your own?  How do you decide, as a parent, what and when is simply too much? Fred Rogers Center research psychologists and parents Michael Robb and Junlei Li ponder Fred’s lessons and grapple with the question of how to set boundaries and model healthy technology use.

In addition to being psychologists, we are parents.  Like many parents, we struggle with balancing appropriate technology use in our family lives.  Recently, over a series of long in-person and email exchanges, we fleshed out our differences of opinion over what Fred said in a magazine interview titled, “Are Games Good for the Neighborhood?”

“I think (video games) are kind of like television and computers, and so much of it is interaction with a machine rather than a person.  That’s the part that concerns me about kids, because I think that one of the most important things in growing is to be in touch with other human beings.

“When a game is taking somebody away from large parts of the day that might have been used in an interactive kind of relationship with other human beings, that’s when it becomes too much.” — Fred Rogers

too_much-300x224Junlei: As a parent, I can imagine real scenarios where I apply Fred’s criteria.  Once during a visit to grandma’s, when my younger daughter was in 3rd grade, she kept asking me if she could go watch a online video. I told her “no” because we were there to spend time with grandma.  It’s not that what she wanted to watch was inappropriate.  Instead, this was a case where the consumption of digital media would have, as Fred said, taken her away from an opportunity to interact with her grandmother.

Mike: But it’s easy enough to think of similar situations where it would be fine to use technology during a family visit. For example, when my son (he’s three) spends time with his grandpa, it’s not uncommon for grandpa to watch a YouTube video with him. It’s something they both enjoy, can talk about, and get to do together.

Junlei: I wonder if both of our examples have the same underlying criteria:  The use of technology that help bring people together is appropriate.  But we need to put limits on technology use when it takes away from human interaction.

Mike: Although even that line can be blurry. If a child plays with blocks by himself for a half-hour and never talks to anyone about it, does the play still have value? Most of us would say yes.  But if a child plays a digital building game by herself on a tablet for that same half-hour, is it automatically a negative experience because it didn’t bring people together?

Junlei: But I still don’t think we should always resort to the generic response that “technology is neither good nor bad in and of itself, it’s how you use it that matters.”  No one is selling wooden blocks to children with the same fervor and ubiquity (backed by billion-dollar industries)  being used to market technology and media products to children and adults.  To take a safe and neutral position feels like the equivalent of saying: “Hey, fast food is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It’s how you eat it that matters—like Jared in the Subway commercials.”  What chance does steamed broccoli have against sodium-packed and sugar-saturated junk food?  What chance do wooden blocks have against the bombardment of “junk media”?

Mike: But not all technology or media is “junk,” and I do think it’s interesting to think about how kids use technology. What qualifies as good use? I think good use is determined by whether technology contributes to or detracts from human relationships.  It is more than just bringing people together, it is also helping them to engage with one another in listening, collaborating, and sharing.

I wanted (children) to know that I could use the computer, but that I could also turn it off.  It takes a strong person to be able to turn off the computer. -Fred Rogers

Junlei: I think part of this “human relationship” includes how a child relates to herself. When a child is playing wood blocks alone, she is possibly listening to the stories in her own mind and letting the blocks conform to her imagination. In that case, the child is learning to understand and relate to herself.  When a child plays a typical commercial game expertly designed to “hook” the person for hours and days, he is letting the marketer and designer dictate what he wants and what he imagines. The game gets in the way of the child developing a healthy sense of self-control.

Mike: I think comparing wooden blocks to a “typical commercial game” is a little unfair, as there are certainly many high-quality educational, creative technology applications on the market. However, there are certainly many products out there that should give a parent pause. I think it is important for children to develop “control” over their play and for adults to model “control” when it comes to technology use. The important role a parent has is to offer a sense of “control”— not just in how much technology they let their child use, but in how they themselves find and maintain a healthy balance between education and entertainment, between interacting with or through a machine and interacting face-to-face with other human beings.

Junlei: I remember what Fred said about showing children his own use of a computer on the Neighborhood program. He said: “I wanted (children) to know that I could use the computer, but that I could also turn it off.  It takes a strong person to be able to turn off the computer.”

When we ourselves increasingly rely on devices and social media to provide entertainment, affirmation, and social recognition in our lives, it is too easy to let technology use become “the mainstay of a child’s play,” as well as our own adult lives. Both parents and children may not always feel that they have the discipline on their own to restore that healthy balance.  But we can certainly try to develop such discipline “if there is someone we love close by who can lend us some of the strength we do not yet have within ourselves.”  As parents, we probably lend our strength to children as much as they lend theirs to us.

How has your family or classroom tried to develop a healthy balance of technology use?  How have you helped your children?  How have your children helped you?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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