Home is where the hearth is

Digital and media devices seem to permeate our homes, and, given that many of these gadgets or tools are firmly entrenched (and probably taken for granted), how are they changing the way we parent our children? For years the TV (and it has now been around for over half a century) has also been affectionately referred to as ‘the babysitter’ (certainly for much younger children). A search on the Internet will provide ample evidence of the apparent negative consequences of ‘too much TV viewing.’ The argument has raged for many years, and more recently the BBC has alerted us to a report on the longitudinal impact of TV viewing and the likelihood that kids will do poorly at school, among other problems down the track. In Australia, there have been attempts to address some of the issues at government policy level – albeit not without its critics condemning the fantasy associated with implementation.

‘Electronic hearth’ of the home

Of course, we are not just dealing with television are we? We now have mobile phones and smart devices that provide a small screen to view at any time of the day – and not just TV viewing. Movies can be downloaded onto the Ipod Touch, the computer and smart phone; programs can be streamed from any of these media appliances. The TV is the “electronic hearth” of the home (and most lounge/family rooms are testament to the hearth-like nature, where furniture is placed around the TV which acts as a centre for entertainment). Perhaps now it is more of a ‘digital hearth’ combining a variety of media hardware and software, including music, gaming, movies, and printing facilities (for all those photos taken from smart phones). Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect gaming system captures movement with motion sensing controllers via a 3D camera – evolving the electronic hearth into a more active and virtual play space, with movement sensing technology also adding to the electronic hub.

Staying inside

Are Playstations, wii’s and Xboxes lying dormant in houses due to their novelty having worn off? What is the newest gadget that keeps our kids indoors in front of the screen? I am aware that there are parents out there that feel pressured by their children to purchase the latest, newest, most updated device – and some of the kids’ arguments can be compelling: “We will be physically working out on the virtual track!” The wii was very popular for providing a physical workout – until the kids figured out how to use the ‘racquets’ with minimal hand movements! Or the novelty wore off – no longer providing exotic appeal and diminishing in use. The next generation Kinect gaming system is currently selling at a rapid rate, achieving record sales. This lends support to the notion that new and novel technology is highly appealing (see Shiny, Bright New Things post). Are these electronic devices keeping us indoors?

Added to this is parents’ fear of the potential danger to their children if they ‘hang out’ after school. The University of Western Australia conducted a study that found parental anxiety was a barrier to children’s physical activity such as walking or cycling to school and playing at parks. In this context, it is not surprising that we are happy to collude with our children’s desires for virtual games that they can play indoors rather than be outside where it is potentially perilous.

Bubble-wrapped kids

Shifts in Australian family life have led to changes in daily activity and routine, where parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ are distorted and impact the level of children’s independence and physical activities. Kids become ‘bubble-wrapped.’ In a report on the growing backlash against over-parenting, a link has been identified between the peace and prosperity of the 21st century, the rise of fear and anxiety despite crime statistics decreasing, and parents not letting their kids out of their sight. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001 (in the US).

Parents are happy to buy electronic devices as a means of keeping their children safe from the dangers that might be lurking on the streets. I have friends that have bought Xboxes and wii’s for their children, because they would prefer their kids to be active indoors rather than outside where they cannot supervise them (it is unsafe ‘out there’).

Paradoxical dilemma for parents

I began this post with the notion of the TV as babysitter. Now we have other devices taking on the ‘babysitting’ role, or at least entertaining the children until we get home from work. Do we prefer that our kids sit at home in front of the TV, wii or X-Box, rather than actually go outside and play in an ever-increasing dangerous world (even if it is only in our own minds)? Are we increasingly becoming ‘helicopter parents?’ Lenore Skenazy states that ”overparenting is equated to good parenting but by keeping our children from the ‘everydayness’ of life we’ve taken away the chance of them noticing something on their own or interacting with someone on their own.” She shared her story of allowing her 9-year-old son to take the subway home alone, and got lambasted by the media for it. How should parents manage the issue of encouraging independence? Are children acting independently via their digital devices? Is there a difference between roaming the streets and roaming the Internet when it comes to protecting our kids (metaphorically speaking)? I don’t have the answers, but I am trying to give my daughter more freedom to explore the outside world, and encourage her to be more active outdoors (not that she takes it up too often)! How can we regulate the level of electronic activity our kids are involved with when the devices are small and portable? Is our own electronic activity having an impact on the way we interact with our kids? How can we, as parents, dictate boundaries when our own behaviours with technology might be contradicting those we desire in our kids? Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capacity to alienate family members from each other and of connecting them – how is the paradox playing out in your families?

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A very short story on the history of technology acceptance

Looking at my surroundings while attempting to work, I was struck by the titles of some of the books on the shelves (otherwise known as my library) in my study (which is an ode to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where I am able to contemplate all things). Obviously these books are related to the field of my research, but take a look and see what comes to mind…

Alone Together – Sherry Turkle
The Second Self – Sherry Turkle
New Tech, New Ties – Rich Ling
Distracted – Maggie Jackson
Cyburbia – James Harkin
The Winter of Our Disconnect – Susan Maushart
Hamlet’s Blackberry – William Powers
The Wired Homestead – Turow & Kavanaugh
Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out – Ito, Baumer, Bittanti, et al
Modern Media in the Home – Mackay & Ivey
Enough – John Naish
The Shallows – Nicholas Carr
The Dumbest Generation – Mark Bauerlein
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

All except Neil Postman’s 1985 book were published between 2003 and 2011. What do the titles of these books suggest to us about human interaction? Do they strike you as ebulliently positive? Are they steeped in existential ponderings about how humans ‘be’ in the modern techno-filled world? What is the overriding theme espoused? Is there any hope? Are we communicating more, or less, or just differently? Where did it start, and does it have an end?

A Brief Historical Perspective
Developed in the 1830s the telegraph was considered an innovative and new communications technology that allowed people to correspond across vast distances. It was considered to be:

“A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.” (The Victorian Internet, Standage, 1998)

Moral panic
Ten years after its introduction, the telephone was invented, creating more hype, fear and conflicting emotions about the possible effects on society, and more importantly, the family. Telephones would make people lazy according to some – and that face-to-face communication would decline. The same utopian and dystopian views were championed with the launch of the horseless carriage, the wireless radio, the television, and, it would seem, every new technological innovation.

“Utopian statements which idealised the new medium as an ultimate expression of technological and social progress were met by equally dystopian discourses which warned of (its) devastating effects on family relationships and the efficient functioning of the household” (Spigel 1992, p. 3). While Spigel was referring to the medium of television, the same can be said for most new media and ICTs – each new medium brings with it a concomitant moral panic about its potential social and familial effects.

Is history on continual repeat?

The Dilemma of the Digital Parent

In an age where digital devices proliferate, how is it changing the way we parent our children? Being a parent requires amazing skills including (but not limited to) being well versed in: management techniques, logistics, creativity, sociability, consultation, culinary endeavours, counselling, as well as dexterity, tolerance, having medical expertise (or at least basic nursing abilities), pragmatics and general knowledge. Factor in balancing work obligations, social connections and maintaining a home life – is it any wonder parents find  escape in their Facebook accounts, tweets and texts? The very same thing that they complain their kids do too much of!

Sherry Turkle has recently published a book ‘Alone Together’ that investigates parental use of technology and how it affects our children. Her study was conducted over 5 years, with 300 interviews of various family members. What she has surmised is that children often feel hurt, jealousy, and competition for attention. The difference in our communication with our kids can be influenced by whether our devices are switched on or off.

As parents we have often complained about the tunnel vision that our children get when in front of a screen (and screens are now as small as the palm of our hands). But we neglect to look at our own behaviour when it comes to digital technology. Are we (as parents) as addicted to our technology and the  connections provided as our kids? Is future family togetherness to be mediated by texts, tweets and social network status updates? Are we becoming less present to our kids?

Here’s an interesting quiz to determine your digital parenting style:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/resources/parents/#b2ans

This was my result on the Protection-Empowerment scale: Although you are concerned with protection, it is more important to you to empower your child and his or her use of digital media. You find ways to get involved and increase the benefits of digital media. You recommend Web sites to your child and suggest age appropriate ways for him or her to participate online.