The pros and cons of parking your kid in front of a screen

Not long ago, I went to a talk at MIT where one of the presenters, a computer science professor, offered an amusing anecdote about his 2-year-old daughter, who had begun talking more and more. He was surprised, he said, when after the conventional "Mommy" and "Daddy" and "Yes" and "No" that were his daughter's very first words, the next articulate thought that came out of her mouth was, "Skip ad!"

For many of us, it has become commonplace to bemoan the outsized role virtual technologies have taken in our lives. For instance, Jesuit Fr. James Martin once recalled strolling through an open-air farmers market on a beautiful, sunny day surrounded by the melodies of street musicians and the smell of ripe peaches when all of a sudden, a woman "punching her BlackBerry and listening to her iPod," oblivious to everything and everyone around her, "knifed through us and rushed away."

That word stabbed me: "knifed." When people ask me why I still have a dumb phone rather than a smartphone, sometimes I answer that I can pray and reflect better and dwell in the present moment if I am not constantly distracted by an influx of emails. But sometimes, I relate that Jim Martin story and try to explain how the woman's technology made her into a knife. These technologies -- helpful as they can be in so many contexts -- can also turn us into weapons.

But it's not just in spiritual circles that some vaguely apocalyptic neo-Luddism is in the air. Recently, even a granola bar company aired an ad lamenting that children never play outside anymore.

I've found it edifying to read a few recent articles put out by The New York Times following the release of the documentary "Web Junkie," which is about an Internet addiction treatment center in China for sullen, "World of Warcraft"-binging boys who have lost their connection to the "real world."

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First, the Times ran a piece by Jane Brody assembling disheartening statistics on young people's use of technology: "The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day," according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"We're throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down," Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair told Brody.

Moreover, personal interactions suffer. "If kids are allowed to play 'Candy Crush' on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that's not what kids need," Steiner-Adair said. "They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance."

Brody also rolls out common caveats regarding the particularly distressing presence of violent video games in young people's lives. "I like blood and violence," said a fourth-grader whose favorite game is "Call of Duty: Black Ops."

Now, the Times has delved further into the nuances of these issues with five op-eds featured on its Room for Debate page.

Yale University professor Marc Potenza recaps the debate "over whether one can be addicted to the Internet itself, or if the Internet serves as a vehicle for engaging in addictive behavior." Brendesha Tynes, associate professor at the University of Southern California, wants to distinguish "between screen time that interferes with functioning," such as interactions involving cyberbulling, "and that which leads to more positive engagement." Kimberly Young, a psychologist and professor at St. Bonaventure University, has developed parenting guidelines for regulating technology at various ages, while Chris Bergman, founder and chief executive of ChoreMonster, says it is futile and counterproductive for parents to try to limit teenagers' screen time.

The fifth op-ed is a particularly interesting contribution by Danah Boyd at Microsoft Research. Boyd proposes that we examine the root causes in society of young people's attraction to virtual technologies. Some kids go to the Internet in search of understanding and acceptance. "As a geeky, queer youth growing up in suburban America in the early 1990s," Boyd says of herself, "the Internet was the only place where I didn't feel judged. I wanted to go virtual, for my body to not matter, to live in a digital-only world."

Others, however, may wind up online because society has given them no other choice. "We've locked [our children] indoors because we see the physical world as more dangerous than ever before," Boyd writes, "even though by almost every measure, we live in the safest society to date. We put unprecedented demands on our kids, maxing them out with structured activities, homework and heavy expectations. And then we're surprised when they're frazzled and strung out.

"For many teenagers, technology is a relief valve. ... It's not the inherently addictive substance that fretting parents like to imagine. It simply provides an outlet."

It is clear, then, that beyond empowering parents to make exceedingly difficult choices concerning their kids' exposure to computer screens, we also need to make all of our social environments more accepting, more welcoming, and at once more leisurely and more invigorating. "As long as American society remains something to be escaped from," goes a line in Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice, "the cartels will always be in business." The same can evidently be said about technology.

Boyd makes a passing reference to the fact that "Finland and the Netherlands consistently outperform the U.S. in school, and they emphasize student happiness, assigning almost no homework. (To be sure, they also respect their teachers and pay them what they're worth.)" As we reflect on all of this and derive inspiration, perhaps, from our European cousins, here -- as the poet says -- is your moment of Zen.


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