A guest blog by Amy Poeppel
There’s no opting out of technology anymore. Despite our nostalgia, determination, and occasional self-righteousness, we are faced with the fact that computers, cell phones, and tablets are as much a part of our lives as food, underwear, and indoor plumbing. When I worked in the admissions department of a NYC private school, I encountered many parents who wanted to make technology nonexistent or at least inconsequential in the lives of their kids, but I never understood how that could work.
One morning I had an interview with an 11-year old boy who was completely screen-deprived. His parents were convinced that computers, and especially video games, are damaging to developing minds, so they kept their young son away from screens entirely. They believed in old-fashioned, wholesome fun – fresh air, board games, and books. Maybe they’re right, but what I saw was a kid so obsessed with computers, that I couldn’t conduct a constructive interview with him. All he wanted to talk about, literally all, was access to computers at our school.
“What kinds of activities do you enjoy?” I asked him. “Sports? Music? Playing with friends?”
“Do I get to use a computer on the very first day of school?” was his reply.
Forbidding access to technology clearly doesn’t work, but even setting limits – I find, anyway – is impossible. My son is 17. He does homework while watching Law & Order SVU on a split screen, with Facebook open, his phone buzzing, and a bag of Tostitos spilled out on his desk. I can imagine some parents, better parents, especially those with younger kids, reading this and saying, “Well, clearly you’re being negligent.” Perhaps they would have recommendations, like, “Just take his computer away. Confiscate his iPhone from the hours of 6:00 to 9:00. Unplug and unwind. Have computer-free weekends.” And my favorite, “Always know exactly what he’s doing on his computer at all times.” How? I can’t possibly monitor his every keystroke. And I don’t think I should.
I spoke to a neuroscientist at NYU who couldn’t offer me many assurances about computer use and developing minds. He says that at this point we know so little about how the brain actually works that we can’t possibly predict the long-term effects of extended time spent using a computer. (“That’s not even a reasonable question.”) He also said the Ph.D. students and postdocs in his lab are extraordinarily smart and accomplished, and they do their work while listening to music, with one screen on MATLAB and another two or three on YouTube, Facebook, and Gmail along with a few running dialogues in chat windows. He doesn’t know how they do it, but they do, and brilliantly. So it’s a relief to me to know that their work environment isn’t so different from that of my 17 year old. “I don’t think we’ve even identified the upper limit of the number of electronic interfaces that young people can simultaneously manage,” the neuroscientist told me. That’s very nerdy but comforting. I think.
So maybe our kids are using their multi-tasking minds in current, astonishing ways that are exciting and new and will make them better at many things that my generation can’t even grasp. (They may be worse at a few other things – but I’m not so good at churning butter or sewing, and I seem to be getting along just fine.)
We’re told repeatedly about all the reasons we should worry about excessive computer use, but I’ve decided to stop fretting and look at the bright side. So here are six reasons NOT to worry about your teenager’s screen time:
1. They’re learning new languages. And by languages I mean C++ and Python, Ruby, Perl, and Pascal, or any of the programming languages people use to write code that can do everything from app design to mathematical problem solving.
2. They’re an in-house Genius Bar. Why spend money hiring someone to teach you how to use Excel or back up your hard drive? Your computer-savvy child can be your own personal tutor.
3. They are active members of an online community. This comes with risks, I know. But when high school kids are working on a group project for school, chances are they’re going to chat about it, put their material in Google Docs, exchange ideas, and socialize the night before. All online, all on a screen. As Susan Pinker says in her new book The Village Effect, “Our wireless devices are addictive for a reason. They connect us, and we’re a deeply, profoundly social species.”
4. They learn to distinguish between reputable and stupid. Fact or fiction? Kids find out quickly that they have to be wary of what they read. They know that some sites are educational and some are terrible, and some can be both. Ask high school students what they think of Wikipedia, and they’ll tell you, “It’s super helpful, most of the time, except when it’s not.”
5. They will look up facts before you can say “encyclopedia.” Every time you blank on the name of that actor in that thing that you saw that time, your kids can get you the answers you need.
6. They type ridiculously fast. And that, for everyone, is a must.
More information on the impact of technology on teens, grown-ups, and communities:
For more on Amy Poeppel, visit www.amypoeppel.com
And look for her forthcoming novel Small Admissions.