It is Thursday night. Matthew, our 9-year-old, is working feverishly to put the finishing touches on a crossword puzzle that he has been laboring over for some time. His younger brother, Noah, inspired by his brother’s wordy pursuits, has composed his own miniature version; sadly, he has stumped me with a few clues. Their older siblings have retired to the living room with Anne of Green Gables and Where the Red Fern Grows, while the youngest ones put the finishing touches on their latest coloring creations. The TV hasn’t been on since Monday. The house, for the moment, is largely quiet.
Studies indicate that in the U.S. today, children ages 8-10 spend an average of 5.5 hours a day linked to some media device. Considering typical multi-tasking rates, the average exposure rises to 8 hours. By age three, 25% of children go online daily. Two to five year-olds average 3.5 hours of television per day. A 2010 survey found that almost a 1/3 of kids ages 8-10 have a mobile device. Approximately 7 in 10 youth ages 8-18 have a TV in their room.
Yet the landscape in our house is starkly different. With 7 kids ranging in age from almost 11 to a newborn, our home is decidedly low tech. We have one TV—in the living room. My wife has a basic cell phone (with no texting or internet capacity); we still have a landline and an answering machine. There is one laptop in the home and no other devices. Our kids probably average about 2-4 hours a week of television, mostly sports and movies; we don’t have cable. Commercials are often turned off much of the time.
It is a conscious decision born of many reasons. As a child psychologist, I am acutely aware of the myriad of risks (and limited benefits) that are associated with youth, mobile devices, and high screen exposure. As a teacher, my wife is aware that marketed educational benefits lack the consistent research backing to support their claims, which is one reason why many high-tech executives have consciously chosen a low tech education (and existence) for their own youth. And as parents, we are collectively aware that the values and critical thinking skills we seek to engender in our offspring demand a consistent environment where curiosity and perseverance trump all else.
But no doubt our choices appear “old school” to many of our parenting peers, and carry their own challenges in a world immersed with instantaneous sights and sounds. From an early age, our kids have noticed and commented that many of their friends and classmates are plugged in much more, and were and are accumulating various devices along the way. Questions and pleas have come (although less of late) about when they, too, could have a phone or a tablet or any other device. Disappointed looks and comments about “so and so having one” periodically arise only in vain.
In the midst of all this, though, have come opportunities that Amy and I consider ever more valuable than any disappointments that may result. From an early age, we have been teaching our kids about media and advertising—the tricks of the trade, false promises made by media moguls, subtle priming strategies, and many ways that mobile devices are not quite the spectacular life-changers they promise to be. What has come in the process seems to be a greater acceptance about why we their parents are making these choices, and the ways in which these heralded devices are already causing drama and heartache at school and in other situations. Yes, they are young. But what appears to be emerging is less naivety and more awareness about the technological world around them. We enjoy sharing moments on the internet together or using it for further exploration. But we hope that they are learning its proper place in our world.
The topic of technology is one that often comes up in my office and in various discussions with other parents and professionals. I have spoken to thousands of people over the years regarding this topic; none have ever challenged the contention that we are exchanging convenience/gratification for health and well-being. Some just don’t see the outcomes as bad as the stats report. Some acknowledge that the purported benefits are difficult to shy away from. But most simply admit that it is difficult to say “no” to their kids when everyone else is doing it, and the grandparents are giving devices for Christmas.
After immersing myself in this topic for ten years, I have little doubt where best practice lies. But given the current technological climate, our decisions (and ones we plan on making) put my wife and I in a challenging place, but potentially an opportunistic one. See, to tell the whole story, you must go back a generation. I was the kid without a VCR, or gaming systems, or a television that got most channels. I didn’t have my own car until I finished sophomore year in college. Like my oldest son, there was a part of me that was convinced I would get what I wanted in “my time”; that part eventually faded away in high school, and life moved on. And I am so, so glad it did because as the years turned into decades, I realized that one of the greatest gifts my parents gave to me was an acute understanding of what I needed, and what I didn’t.
In the end, I think this is what Amy and I are trying to cultivate in our kids. We are not anti-technology. We are just pro-conscientiousness—the kind that comes with knowing that everything has its time and place, unless it isn’t really necessary or good at all. As one of the 2% of individuals in my age bracket without a mobile device, I often have conversations with people who are shocked at this choice. Some think I am a little loony, some don’t know what to think, and some seem outright jealous. Yet like any conscious choice, it has it pros and cons. I would say that about 2% of the time, I wish I had a mobile device for the convenience and experience it offers. Yet for the other 98% of the day, I feel so blessed to be free of any device. And blessed to have a wife who wouldn’t have it any other way.
On a personal note for all of you readers, I know that the choice to embrace “low tech parenting” comes with some real challenges even though I believe many of you feel that this is the best course. Having immersed myself in this topic for some time, I am convinced that the only way most parents/caregivers and youth will embrace this option is if they have others to lean on—those that pledge to make similar choices, such as not giving youth a smartphone, and support each other in these choices. Without this sense of solidarity, it is really difficult to weather the storm of technological immersion. Given this, if you are interested in being part of a growing group of people committed to this course, send Amy and I an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. When the time comes, we will contact you regarding opportunities to meet with like-minded individuals and continue to gain further information, in hopes that you can help grow this mission back in your homes, schools, churches, and wherever it is needed. United in this cause, we can empower each other to make the best decisions in this matter, not just decisions made out pressure and resignation.