Today, I live in a somewhat economically homogenous community, but back in the 1990s, when we still lived in the financial mosaic of Manhattan, I made a note in a journal somewhere that it seemed to me that people wanted to succeed in contemporary, technological society in order to win the reward of living more as organic beings separate from technology. Put another way, we live our lives and do our jobs by plugging into systems in order to earn the freedom to comfortably unplug from as many systems as we can. Why else do leisure-time pursuits so often involve dirt, water, sun, fresh foods, silence, conversation, and a general embargo on high-tech gadgets?
I was thinking about those days while reading an article int he NY Times by Nick Bilton titled Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent. Beginning with an anecdote about Jobs’s own kids not being allowed to use the iPad when it was first released, Bilton cites several examples of top executives in the computer tech industry who place some rather strict limits on their own children’s time spent with various devices. He wonders if these digital executives teaching analog values to their kids might “know something the rest of us don’t,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. It is tempting, of course, to calls these tech-industry parents hypocrites for selling their wares to our children while sheltering their own, but I suspect that many of us know exactly what these parents know — that too much screen time is probably unhealthy. As such, I would not be surprised to learn that households headed by parents who work in the upper echelons of other industries are likewise rigorous about restricting iPads and such for their kids as well. I really think it’s about economics.
It should be stipulated here that post Boomer parents do have an apparently endless supply of theories about child raising. We Gen Xers knew two things as our firsts were born: 1) that we had a rapidly increasing wealth of information being made available to us; and 2) that our parents were unflinchingly wrong about everything. (It’s a wonder we lived, really.) Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of these converging phenomena is the conspiracy of parents who still refuse to vaccinate their children, literally bringing hideous diseases back from extinction, thus representing one of the greatest failures of the so-called information revolution. Certainly, the data are less clear regarding the effects of tech toys on children than, say, pertussis; yet I haven’t encountered too many parents who don’t at least make conscious choices, pro or con, with regard to how much screen time they feel is too much.
Back to economics, though, let’s face it — a contemporary middle-class household is a hectic environment, consistently pressured by the reality that many of life’s basic needs (e.g. medical care) continue to rise in cost outpacing our ability to earn. Add a couple of kids and their divergent, asymmetrical, and at times unreasonable, demands and we rely increasingly on own devices to achieve that elusive work/life balance they keep talking about in the magazines. The balance, of course, is the tricky part, isn’t it?
After all, it’s good news/bad news that we can read a client’s email during dinner that got off to a late start because somebody had martial arts practice; but if you are in fact the client (or boss) in that equation, you are unquestionably freer to ignore that email and engage in conversation with your kids just like low-tech Steve Jobs reportedly did. In turn, the parents’ freedom to unplug models the behavior they want to instill in the child for whom they have set related limits. But in the frenetic, middle-class household today, patterns or rituals can be very difficult to maintain, and all of our many “helpful” devices and their apps are not designed in any way to complement human rhythms or cycles; they much prefer us multi-tasking, always on, and a bit jittery. At what point we become extensions of the technology rather than the other way around is an ontological question I won’t attempt to answer.
So, do these tech-industry parents mentioned in Bilton’s article imply a measure of responsibility on the part of manufacturers? Should we expect Apple to provide warning labels on iPads? Caution: Extended time playing Minecraft may make your child a pain in the ass at home and a lousy student. We probably shouldn’t hold our collective breath for that one or anything like it; and I don’t personally think it is the makers of these technologies who bear that responsibility any more than heavy metal bands are responsible for anti-social behavior in teens. Nevertheless, these digital tools/toys are unquestionably having both positive and negative effects on kids, and the most important feature for parents, regardless of the promises in every new release, will probably still be the Off button.