When Tech-Saavy Parents Are Tech-Cautious

Contributed by Shelby Driskill, TMS Great Books teacher (Elementary)

Early in the school year, a story in the New York Times Magazine caught my attention: “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.” In response to some criticisms he had raised about the new iPad, the author, tech journalist Nick Bilton, received one of Jobs’ hard-hitting phone calls.

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

I’m sure I responded with a gasp and dumbfounded silence. I had imagined the Jobs’s household was like a nerd’s paradise: that the walls were giant touch screens, the dining table was made from tiles of iPads and that iPods were handed out to guests like chocolates on a pillow.

Nope, Mr. Jobs told me, not even close.

— New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2014

Despite the article’s title, I suspect that the tech that was in the Jobs household was hardly low, but the overall point — that the founder of Apple and the force behind much of the “life-styling” of technology was, in his home life, mindful in his approach — is one worth lingering over.  Curating and curbing technology use seems to undermine the essence of its appeal, its increasingly seamless connection to immediate thoughts and needs. The goal of personal tech design is to eliminate the sensation of thinking about it; it’s just there.  And that is amazing. In fact, “amazing” may be the missing piece of the limit conversation. What if the discussion about children and tech can actually began by considering our own relationship with all those amazing changes in the last decades?

Due to the realities of attention and cognition, without active effort, adults can actually drift toward relating to technology like… young children. What executive function we developed in our own childhoods may be no match for the impulse to look something up while having a conversation, to write one quick text at a stoplight, or to react to the email alert. I write this with the fresh memory of answering my phone at a tricky intersection less than an hour ago. But recent research shows that, just as children develop their executive function through positive habits, adults can, in the words of a 2013 Boston Globe article, “fight habit with habit.” While the article is focused on distracted driving, it can easily apply to all of the advances in personal technology:

The goal would be to develop a new trigger for turning the phone off, or even stashing it in the trunk, before getting into the driver’s seat.

Ultimately, the researchers agree, figuring out how to stop grabbing for our phones will depend on recognizing that we’re relating to this new technology with some very ancient instincts—and that we’ll need to take those into account, not just fight them. “It is a new kind of problem,” said Campbell, “and in a way it’s the same old problem we’ve always faced as human beings: that underlying need to connect, to overcome those boundaries between self and other. What I’d call the human condition.”

— The Boston Globe, October 06, 2013

It’s no accident that this ongoing collective examination of limits often takes the form of all-or-nothing arguments. Half-measures are hard, particularly when the urge is strong. This brings me back to Bilton’s Steve Jobs story. When talking about children and technology, Jobs used the word “limit” rather than “eliminate.” The challenge for adults and children is finding a place between all-tech and no-tech.

Perhaps, as families consider limits on screen time, we might have a conversation with children about our own fascination with technology and, by extension, the difficulties adults may have with limiting it. One child’s video game or cartoon may be one adult’s phone call or text. We’re all working on managing these new delights and distractions. Maybe the secret is doing it together.

Images (left to right): http://historicconnections.webs.com/egyptian.htm, http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/11300/11358/gutenberg_11358.htm, janeaustenworld.wordpress.com, The Huffington Post.

tmsWhen Tech-Saavy Parents Are Tech-Cautious