Thursday, June 28, 2012

Just before the family meal

This post was written by Mary Rothschild, Director of Healthy Media Choices, a non-profit that works with parents and teachers of children birth to age eight toward unique strategies for intentional use of media. She also facilitates Witness for Childhood, an effort to bring the voices of progressive humanist and faith communities into the conversation about media and technology in the lives of young children.

Family meal times are getting a lot of press right now, and high time. Recent articles in The Christian Science Monitor by Mary Beth McCauley and the New York Times by Susan Dominus as well as the Huffington Post's on-going series "Family Dinner Table Talk" extoll the virtues of this time-honored (but oft neglected) family ritual, give various resources, and explore the methods famous people from the Obamas to Gwyneth Paltrow employ.

As an advocate for and facilitator of tailor-made strategies for each household toward intentional use of media and family time, I'm delighted to see there is not a "one size fits all" approach in discussions about how to make the most of the opportunity family meals afford.

The cerebral brawls of the Emmanuel family cited, by McCauley, might have produced some powerful actors on the world stage, but quiet reflection on the day's ups and downs, the things accomplished and left unfinished, may be more your cup of tea. They are not mutually exclusive, either. Each group, together for that moment (even if some live part-time elsewhere) can find ways to connect and enjoy their evolving questions and relationships.

A phrase in McCauley's piece caught my attention. One of the symptoms she cites of an "obligatory" family dinner, everyone present physically but not really, she says is: "the thing that looks like grace but really is heads bowed, hands fervently texting." She goes on to say that this is the kind of routine enlightened parents are trying to avoid in various ways. As Laurie David says in the Susan Dominus article:

"A big part of the challenge is teaching your kids how to have a real conversation, not a texting conversation," said Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," who has since devoted her considerable advocacy skills to encouraging more stimulating mealtimes. "If they're not sitting down at the table, the art of conversation is going to go."

The underlying assumption that a head bowed will not be in "grace," is relevant here and, while I haven't done exhaustive research on the current articles on this subject, I don't see evidence that this part of the family dinner ritual is currently explored. There are probably good reasons for that. In my view, there is nothing to be gained from a rote recitation of a prayer. And, anything relating to religion is tough to talk about. But that pause before the meal deserves consideration as one of the little "sticks in the wheel" of the momentum of daily life in a "digital world."

After giving my own presentation at the Media Ecology Association's convention earlier this month, I stopped in on a panel about the influence of Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) French philosopher and Christian anarchist. Ithaca College Professor Raymond Gozzi, Jr. spoke on "Ellul on Prayer vs. la Technique."* Gozzi outlined the ways in which Ellul explored prayer as an antidote to the overwhelming effects of a technological society, especially in his book Prayer and Modern Man. I think Ellul was onto something. What can that bowed head be doing rather than texting that can enrich family time? As always, I don't have a template in mind, but rather invite a look at what this could mean.

It was one of those serendipitous moments when, as I was preparing this post, the catalog from the Zen Mountain Monastery came in the mail (we have gotten it since we bought that little chime) and I opened to the Meal Gatha, a reminder that there are many forms of "grace before meals" that households with ties to faith communities find to be a meaningful touchstone.

Others think of prayer literally as thanking God, but take turns, varying the actual form. Some traditions give thanks to the earth and the source of food. One image that comes to mind is the scene in the film The Gods Must Be Crazy where the hunter thanks the animal that has just been killed for giving its life to sustain humans.

For some of us, it is the pause to change gears that matters. In my own ecumenical home, we have a small rod chime. The youngest person present strikes it and we listen silently, holding hands, until its sound can no longer be heard, an acknowledgement that we are together for this time, sharing that moment and that sustenance. A tiny ritual, but one that is, for us, a "keystone habit" as described in Charles Duhigg's important book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, those sometimes miniscule habits around which other habits orient and a culture can evolve. It, too, could be formulaic and we try to be sensitive to that.

What are your thoughts and experiences? Let's share; this is the place for it.


P. S.: If your work situation means you're tag-teaming with other adults in the household so sitting down together is a rare experience, please weigh in here too, and look for my next post re: what if we can't sit down for meals together?

*I won't go into "la technique" here, except to say it is a term Ellul used to indicate all the means humans employ toward the goal of efficiency, not particular tools or methods. This concept is explored in his book The Technological Society.
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Facebook-for-Kids Won't Keep Kids off Facebook

Let's get one thing straight. The notion that instituting parental controls for Facebook's underage users or creating a kid-friendly version will keep pre-teens off of the regular—or unrestricted—site is ridiculous. The 7.5 million children under the age of 13 who are lying to get on the site will continue lie with or without their parents' permission. According to Microsoft research, only 35 percent of parents whose kids are on Facebook actually know about it.

Child development experts and marketers know that aspiration is a core element of childhood. Little kids long to be like bigger kids. Preteens want to be teenagers. And teens want to be in their twenties. After all, the readers of Seventeen Magazine aren't seventeen. At seventeen, kids are reading Vogue, or Cosmo. Kids are sneaking on to Facebook because it's cool, iconic in our culture, and doesn't have parental controls. They won't be satisfied with Facebook-lite.

Here's who will likely use a kid-friendly Facebook: The millions of children who aren't sneaking on to the real thing. Relieved at dodging the perils of an unrestricted Facebook experience, parents who have been setting limits and kids who have been obeying them will be lulled into believing that the new version is safe. And suppose Facebook lowers the age limit to eight. At one end, six- and seven-year-olds will nag their parents to get on. And on the other, eleven- and twelve-year-olds, scorning a social networking site for little kids, will either nag their parents to get on the regular site or—sneak on.

The advantages to Facebook are obvious—millions of new users and lifetime brand loyalty, the gold standard in marketing. But the harms to kids are numerous. For one thing, they are particularly vulnerable to Facebook's brand of marketing, which leverages personal information to deliver targeted ads and encourages peer-to-peer marketing. Kids shouldn't be subjected to a barrage of advertising honed specifically to who they are—their friends, their interests, and their online behavior—or be notified every single time a friend "likes" a movie, a game, a video game, or any other product.

Even if Facebook dumps the advertising, the site isn't safe. In 2011, one million minors were threatened or harassed on Facebook. Girls ages eight to 12 who are heavy users of social media have fewer good feelings about their friendships. It's hard enough for adolescents to cope successfully with online relationships and encounters. Younger children have not yet developed the maturity and judgment essential to managing the perils of cyber "friendships" or grasping the potential consequences of sharing personal information. But if Facebook starts targeting kids, the pressure to join the site will be intense.

So what can we do? We stop this idea before it becomes a reality. Facebook is vulnerable to public opinion right now, and, at this point, Mark Zuckerberg's dream of targeting kids is only a dream. Sign the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's petition to keep kids off Facebook. And join CCFC's Facebook page, "No FB for Kids Under 13." Read more!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

About That App Gap: Children, Technology, and the Digital Divide

"Technology-handling skills" and "the app gap" are catch phrases among early childhood educators these days. Low-income kids, the argument goes, are disadvantaged by inadequate exposure to tablets and other new technologies. But as Matt Richtel pointed out in the New York Times recently, children from low-income families spend more time handling technology—across platforms—than their wealthier counterparts, and across class, kids mainly use their "handling skills" for entertainment. They play games, watch videos, and visit social networking sites. There are documented gaps in the education of low-income children—for instance, in vocabulary and reading—but research shows that the time young kids spend with technology takes them away from activities known to be educational—hands-on creative play and interaction with caring adults.

"The digital divide" was coined in the 1990s to address inequalities in Internet access. Now it's used to push digital technologies on ever younger children. There are tens of thousands of allegedly educational apps on the market for preschoolers. The National Association for the Education of Young Children is working with Hatch, an ed-tech company, and the Fred Rogers Center to encourage the use of digital devices in early childhood settings. Every week we hear about some benefactor donating iPads to needy kindergarten classrooms. While there's scant evidence that anyone but the companies who make, sell, and advertise on these new technologies benefit from the time young children spend with them, there's plenty of reason to be worried about it. I certainly am.

I'm worried about studies showing that the more time children spend with TV and video games the less well they do in school and the more calories they consume. And the studies showing that the bells and whistles of electronic books actually detract from reading comprehension. And those demonstrating that time with screens changes the very structure of our brains. I'm worried that the skills we gain won't make up for our losses. I'm worried that screen-based reading, with omnipresent hyperlinks, interferes with comprehension and memory, and that heavy Internet use appears to encourage distractedness and discourage deep thinking, empathy, and emotion.

I'm especially worried about the addictive qualities of electronic media. The more time children spend with television before the age of 3, the more time they spend when they're older, and the harder time they have turning it off. I'm worried that fast-paced video games trigger dopamine squirts in our brainskind of like cocaine. A few years ago, one survey of 8- to 18-year-olds found that almost one-quarter said that they "felt addicted" to video games.

And here's what worries me most: We're turning to the companies that profit from these technologies to help parents manage their kids' relationship with screens. While it's great that the Federal Communications Commission is launching a campaign to promote digital literacy, the fact that companies like Best Buy and Microsoft are funding it make it unlikely that weaning kids from their products will be a priority.

There's no question that technology is here to stay. Kids born today will experience wondrous technologies most of us can't even imagine. But the skills they will always need to thrivedeep thinking, the ability to differentiate fact from hype, creativity, self-regulation, empathy, and self-reflectionaren't learned in front of screens. They are learned through face-to-face communication, hands-on exploration of the world, opportunities for thoughtful reflection, and dreams. Read more!

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Failed Screen-Free Week

I failed miserably at Screen-Free Week. Alright, maybe not miserably. Here is the context: my husband Neal and I are home caring for our very new baby, Wes. He is our first child and the love of our lives, and he consumes just about every moment and every ounce of energy we have (just as he is supposed to). Every other day or so, Wes falls into a deep sleep in the evening and Neal and I giddily steal some time to watch an episode of X-Files. I had no idea how crucial this 45 minutes of “zone-out” time was to my new mother sanity until I tried to give it up for Screen-Free Week last Monday. I was hunting aliens with Mulder and Scully on Tuesday.

I was disappointed in myself. Last year my Screen-Free Week was a total success. So much so that my husband and I gave up TV altogether. Now we have a TV set and DVD player, and after Wes is asleep, we enjoy an episode of a television series or a movie on most nights. I realized when I tried to zero out my screen time how important this ritual is to me. It’s a tiny piece of our pre-child life that we carried over into parenthood, a little indulgence we can afford.  

Of course when Neal and I are unraveling unexplained phenomena on the X-Files, cruising the halls of the White House on West Wing, or hanging out with the corner boys on The Wire, Wesley is fast asleep, dreaming baby dreams. He’ll enjoy a screen-free babyhood so his ideas, desires, and imagination can bud on their own without the influence of corporations that would prefer that he develop his early consumer identity. When I gaze into Wes’s endlessly trusting and curious eyes, it infuriates me to think about the companies that want to exploit his vulnerability for profit. I’ve never been prouder to work with Josh and Susan, our Steering Committee, and the thousands of advocates all over the world who are fighting for a commercial-free childhood.

I guess Screen-Free Week wasn’t a complete failure.In struggling with my own screen vices, I’ve done some reflecting and had some important revelations. And I did give up Facebook for the week; do I get partial credit?
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Friday, April 27, 2012

Confessions of a Screen Addict About to Go Cold Turkey (almost) in Anticipation of Screen-Free Week: April 30-May 6

The truth: There I was, Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, champion of limiting children’s screen time, playing Angry Birds on the subway.

The justification: There I was, Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, champion of limiting children’s screen time, after a stressful day trying to change a world that wasn’t cooperating, unable to concentrate on reading, and playing Angry Birds on the subway.

Suddenly a little blonde guy, about six, practically fell over a railing and into my lap trying to get a better look at the game. Awash with guilt at setting a terrible example—being the director of CCFC has its burdens—I shut off my phone. Then his older brother spoke up. “You could get arrested,” he said.

While I felt terrible about contributing to the screen addiction of a minor—to say nothing about succumbing to my own—I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any laws. “Really?” I said. He nodded solemnly and pointed to the “I am the 99%” button on my jacket. “Occupy,” he said, shaking his head. There followed a diverting conversation about the Occupy movement between me, the nine year old, and his babysitter. But his little brother had other things on his mind. “Why do you have that on your phone?” he said. “What?” I asked, innocently, stalling for time. “Angry Birds,” he answered. “Old people like you don’t play Angry Birds.”

I’m giving up Angry Birds for Screen-Free Week. I’m leaning toward giving it up forever, and not because I’m old. Here’s what I notice when I play: There’s just enough strategy to keep me interested. Once I start it’s hard to stop, and, the weird thing is, it’s not relaxing.

In addition to Angry Birds, I’m giving up Facebook, which I use mostly to keep track of my 30-something relatives and to play cutthroat games of Wordscraper with a friend I don’t see much. I’m also going to forgo my Sunday night back-to-back viewing of Game of Thrones and Mad Men. Not sure that counts, since I’ll DVR the episodes. Finally, since it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between work addiction and screen addiction, I’ll keep my computer completely off when I’m at home after work.

Here’s what I’m not going to give up: Screens for work during working hours.

Actually, I’m looking forward to a week without screens at home. These days I’m more aware of how they dominate my life—and what’s better without them. I sleep more soundly if I turn off my computer a few hours before bed. I pay more attention to conversation with friends and family if I’m not near a screen when we chat on the phone. And on the few purposefully screen-free vacations I’ve taken this year, I’ve returned feeling more centered and with more energy.

I’ve come to realize that one of the values of Screen-Free Week is that it helps make conscious what is usually unconscious. Screens are so interwoven into our lives that we stop noticing whether they’re fun, useful, or even necessary. We use them by default. To fill up time. To distract us from thinking. To save us from the void.

So, this Screen-Free Week I’m looking forward to meals with people I love, reading, walks, music, taking my granddaughters to the circus—and freedom from compulsion to catapult those stupid birds.
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