Monday, February 04, 2013


Tech Time

This one is for the parents out there.

What’s your philosophy on “technology time” for your kids?  

We have a few techie toys around the house that the kids enjoy using: a kindle fire, a nook running android, and an ipod touch.  (For those keeping score at home, all of those were bought used, and all work quite well.  I’m not sure why this option isn’t more popular.)  There’s also the family laptop on which TW and I do work, and the kids play Minecraft.

(For the uninitiated, Minecraft is a game in which kids build virtual buildings.  The Boy loves doing multilevel stadiums or castles.  I don’t even know if there’s a competitive component to it; he just loves building stuff.  Judging by its popularity at Lego League, Minecraft is the Space Invaders for this generation.)

Naturally, the kids love playing with tech more than they love, say, doing homework, practicing their instruments, or hanging their coats in the closet.  At their age, I would have been the same way.  

I’m a little bit torn.

Part of me agrees with treating tech as analogous to television: acceptable in small doses, but in large doses not leading anywhere good.  They aren’t programming or hacking; they’re just playing games.  As such, I’m fine with a little as play or stress relief, but I’d hate to see more worthy endeavors sacrificed to it.  So this approach suggests rationing tech time and treating it as a sort of reward for getting the necessary stuff done.  (TW is firmly in this camp.)  Call it the “spinach before dessert” approach.

But part of me sees comfort with tech as a key skill/habit in the coming years, and I don’t want to weigh my kids down with my own misgivings.  From what I’ve seen of the techies I’ve known, most of them spent what looked like unhealthy amounts of time at some point in childhood messing around with whatever tech they could get their hands on.  For many of them, games were the initial appeal, but soon they started going beyond what was presented.  A sort of excess became the foundation for later exploration and invention.

As the kids get older, we’ll have less control over this sort of thing, which is why I want us to get it right while our opinions still matter.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to encourage your kids to engage with the creative side of tech without too much time-suck from other things?  I want them to be comfortable with tech, but I don’t want to see them lose touch with everything else.  And I worry about presenting either homework or tech as spinach.

Ah, yes. We actually have a limit on screen time--or we did. We're more in a tcb mode now,i.e., if you get homework and chores done, do whatever you want, mostly. Anyway, we had a one hour on school nights, two hours on the weekends limit when the kids were preteens. And we encouraged other activities like sports and reading. We also did tech things with them, like played on the wii or another online game with them.

There was always some slippage, but we did our best to stick with it. And, of course, a lot depends on your kid. I definitely believe in moderation in all things, and that goes for tech, too.
If they are programming, I'd give them more leeway. But programming is harder with today's computers than simply writing BASIC programs on the Commodore-64.
We have a five year old girl (who has a Kindle Fire), and a three year old boy (who has a Nobu). Both of them will let them watch videos, YouTube, and play games. No firm policies on limiting tech time here.

With our daughter, it's not been an issue, because while she likes the tech, she also likes drawing, Barbies, Legos, and general pretend play at least as much, if not more. With our son, he can get a little obsessive, but most of the time he will also gladly abandon the tech if someone is willing to actually play with him in real life. And once winter is over and he can go outside as will, I suspect he will go back to his regular schedule of running around our backyard like a maniac.

I suppose our general policy is, as much tech as you want, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the rest of your life. So homework has to get done in time (not necessarily first), you have to stay clean and dressed appropriately, you need to eat well, you need to be courteous to your friends and family (i.e., if a friend comes over for a playdate, no hanging out playing video games unless they also want to do that), you need to get a reasonable amount of exercise for good health.

So far, so good -- we'll see if we need to change that policy as time goes on.
As a separate note, just yesterday I installed RescueTime to help me control my Facebook-ing, and last week I started playing the Email Game to help me churn through my metric ton of backlogged e-mail instead of goofing off while online. So I guess I think of this as not a kid problem, really, but more of a general human issue -- tech is enjoyable and mildly addictive, and we all have to be careful not to let it get in the way of the rest of our lives. If I can instill that attitude in my kids, I think they'll be okay.
The actual amount of tech time matters less than whether tech use is becoming a default when there is some time to fill, or when you are trying to avoid some less-appealing activiy. As you know, this issue is huge not just for kids but for teens and young adults. Workplaces have had to block access to Facebook; smart phones make it pretty hard to start a conversation in an airport; and so on.
Since I grew up on old school Oregon Trail where you actually got to shoot stuff and no one ever made it to the West Coast, I'd say as long as there was a learning component to the game, it counts as homework in my book.

From what you relate, you are raising to well-balanced, interesting kids. Probably not an issue you need to worry about too much. Flexibility will be key. Tech has changed so much since I was a child, hard and fast rules aren't going to help.
My kidlet (3.5 years) currently has to write his letters and numbers before he can watch TV (this is a weirdly strict view to my mind, but it seems to work as a good deterrent).
He has no particular limit on the computer, but I feel very possessive about mine (he assassinated my laptop as I was writing my thesis), so he mostly gets to watch youtube videos with me or has to wait until we go to the library for obnoxious Dora games.

I had a time limit on tv as a kid, and had to do a minimal amount of educational computer stuff, but was mostly left free to roam the internet. Perhaps I represent a warning to parents in the perils of leaving your kid to do that?
I think later if I'm not thrilled with what my kid is doing I might try to restrict consumption of media vs. production of media, but that is a pretty arbitrary distinction really.
I don't have kids, so I'll just stick with my childhood experience instead.

We were allowed 30 minutes a day of computers and 60 during the weekend. As teens, homework on computers was exempt from that and it became 30 minutes of (dial-up) internet. That was more than enough to teach us the ins and outs of computers.

Having said that, no amount of "learning" time on techs is going to teach your kids how to burn DVD's or create back-ups, or other more useful tech skills that will help them later; they need motivation for that, not screen time. I know people who, despite their endless hours on computers as teens, could not figure out how to burn a CD or DVD (even when burning was still a relevant skill).

I doubt your kids will have any tech issues later on that could have been avoided by more screen time now.
Well, I think encouraging TB to make a Powerpoint presentation of one of his buildings or a PPt of many of them might be just as exciting as building them. He can take screen shots or photos of the buildings and load them to the computer. Or he could make a Ppt presentation of anything he is interested in. Planning what he will show, writing text, and downloading photos from the Internet before arranging the text and photos followed by selecting colors, fonts, timings all require use of thinking skills which will transfer over into problem solving in other subjects.

Let TB and TG explore what is available on Powerpoint choices.

Just make sure his subject is something he likes. And when you see something interesting he has done, let him show you how he did it.

My third grade class did this: Minimum of three slides telling about their favorite breed of dog. First slide- picture of the dog, second slide- personality of dog written in text with a small picture of dog, third slide- text of two or three reasons they liked the dog.

My students kids chose their fonts, colors, transitions, special effects, timing, and so on. I gave them basic instruction of how to make a slide and choose colors. They did the rest and discovered all the bells and whistles in Powerpoint, then they showed me and their classmates how to replicate their work. Kids are fearless on using new parts of the computer. I learned a lot about Powerpoint from my kids.

Not sure what operating system you have or computer, but there is a lot of techie learning which will benefit him in future years by making PPt presentations.
Building Powerpoint slides about a subject is akin to building virtual buildings. Exploring options, selection of options, and putting everything together to have a finished product is fun. Depending on your computer ability, he could make a Powerpoint (or video) of how he made his favorite virtual building.

Parent of 4 and 2.

We have the internet turned off for large chunks of the week. Mostly for ME (dad). That is, I get home at 7pm, and if we leave wireless on, I gravitate to one more email...

But it has a nice effect, I think, on limiting our kids too while increasing my interactions with them.
Functioning wireless tech at home is a great time sink; my daughter (11) reads from her Nook Simple Touch, communicates with her firends over the Ipod and does all sorts of degign games as well as reading with my wife's Ipad. Most of this depends, of course, on whether or not the Imac (aka Dad's Work Mule) is running, which provides a short-distance wireless router service for our small house.

Limits are informal, but my daughter has run up against them. She knows--and mostly remembers--that when I say to turn the blessed thing (whichever one she has in hand) OFF, I mean it. until homework is done, no facetime; at bed time, the electronics go off and the book comes out.

I second what Ms. Mohanraj said, above: "as much tech as you want, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the rest of your life." So far, our daughter has a vibrant rest of her life (voracious reader, lego/Playmobil builder, basketball, Mathletes, Quiz Bowl, plus dogs and friends)so the electronics have not taken over. Yet.
I would encourage you to not view ipads or kindles or anything of that sort as learning "tech" skills. This is an issue that many of us teaching struggle with - incoming students can use facebook and twitter and get called tech-savy, but can't actually figure out word, excel, or research databases.

There are lots of "games" that I could see counting as learning time. I downloaded baby flashcards in foreign languages and a grade-school spelling program in a foreign language to keep myself learning and to keep my vocab up. Something like this counts towards education, but again, is not making me "tech savy."

Learning to program an app, learning perl or java, and there is even some sort of game I saw featured once that turns coding into a game - now that's teaching your kids to be tech savy. Letting your kids take apart the ipad when it finally dies to explore (under supervision) if there is a loose connection or even building a computer together builds tech skills.

Honestly, I live in silicon valley. There was an article a couple of years ago talking about how the tech elite send their kids to montessori schools that downplayed computer learning and emphasize learning music and the arts and thinking skills because, how you use a computer is constantly evolving, but building up thinking skills is what lets you keep on top of things (and the kids get enough computer time outside of school).
All of this talk about Tech Time and the amount of distraction that the overuse of all of these tech devices provides for the modern generation of kids got me reminiscing about my own childhood back in the 1950s. We had no internet, no video games, no iPhones, no iPads, no Facebook, and nothing at all like the toys that are such distractions for modern-day kids. What sorts of things provided our distractions?

I am sure that every kid is able to find some sort of distraction that keeps them from doing their homework or from completing their chores. What sorts of distractions were available for kids at that time? I suppose that television, being relatively new at that time, was the source of lots of distractions for kids of that era. But we didn’t even have television until I was 15 years old, and even then we could only get one TV station, a CBS affiliate. I suppose the major distraction for me as a kid was radio—programs like The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Shadow, etc. But the radio programs of interest to me were only on the air for only about an hour per day. Another distraction of that era was comic books, and at that time there was a lot of talk about how certain horror comics were harmful to young kids. One of my distractions was model airplanes, and my bedroom was chocked full of all sorts of aeronautical goodies.

As I got older and entered my teenage years, rock and roll became another distraction, and like many teenage kids I had a record collections and spent many hours listening to Top-40 radio stations.

I guess that every generation of kids has been able to find their own sets of distractions, and it is up to their parents to see that these distractions are only relatively minor and do not become all-consuming.

Whatever you decide, don't be a "hopeful parent":
My daughter (10) is an avid minecraft player but also a major consumer of the Yogscast/Captain Sparkles (et al) minecfraft play thrus on Youtube.
( And according to rumours $75,000 p.a. for playing video games would be chump change for the Yogscast.)

We've just finished our summer holidays here and we had a rule that was no screen time from 9am until after dinner.

I would have relaxed this rule for a kindle/kobo but I would ban an ipod. Kids turn up the sound to high on them and start the process of long term damage to their ears.

We had occasional and random "slob days" when we relaxed the rules and we all played computer games.

I don't think she did anything particularly more worthy in the non-screen time but she was more willing to try new things.

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