Me vs. screens

February 29, 2012

A few weeks ago my son was invited to a birthday party. The evite said the theme was Plants vs. Zombies. Huh? So I Googled it. And sure enough, there were pea shooter plants on the screen battling not-too-scary zombies for domination of a front yard. Strangely, it was kind of cute.

Of course I didn’t want my son to feel left out at the party, so I downloaded the one-hour demo of Plants vs. Zombies – just so he could know what it was all about. That was my first step onto the slippery, double black diamond slope that is computer games. A one-hour demo of battling zombies leads to desperate pleas from my son: “I just got to the nighttime part and I have to see what zombies show up next! … You have to download it! … I’ll pay for it with my own money! … Please!”

Parents have struggled with this forever: How do you keep your child on a socially level playing field with the other children without succumbing to a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses struggle? In the second-grade crowd of boys, computer games are what they talk about, what they mimic and how they connect. Cowboys vs. Indians are a thing of the past, and Plants vs. Zombies rules the schoolyard (right there with Harry Potter and Star Wars).

While I don’t want digital dominance in our house, I do see the value in playing some computer games. Plants vs. Zombies gets his problem-solving, strategic gears going in a fun and funny way.

I did download Plants vs. Zombies, and he did pay for it with his own money. He says he’s saving up for a NintendoDS, but at this rate he’ll be 16 before he has enough for that. Lucky me!

If you’ve ever wondered what the right age is to let a child engage in social media, wonder no more. TotSpot has you covered.

According to the website: “Just like Mom and Dad, junior gets a profile on TotSpot, complete with status updates, real time updates in an activity stream, and a beautiful assortment of themes.” Wow. It’s the Facebook of the diaper and pull-up set.

It got me thinking. If babies really could share status updates of “what’s on your mind,” what would they say? “Totally digging this ceiling fan!” “No fair! I called shotgun first!” “Got dinner to fall on the floor again. Loving this gravity thing!”

But I digress. It’s one thing to use technology to share photos and cute stories about our kids, but it’s another to have small children spend their time promoting themselves. I’ve had a blog to document my son’s life for nearly eight years now, and it’s been a convenient way to keep far-away grandparents feeling connected. But the blog isn’t for my son. He does not post anything to it, and rarely even sees it. That’s a far different thing than having toddlers help post status updates about themselves.

TotSpot feels like the gateway drug to the look-at-me culture Facebook promotes. I love the fact that TotSpot fosters opportunities for parents and family to stay in touch online, but do babies really need to be connecting with their baby friends on a screen? Ditch the screen for baby and find the sandbox.

12-year-old inspiration

February 24, 2012

There are two kinds of tech-savvy kids. There are the kids who spend hours learning the tricks to play games like Angry Birds and there are the kids who spend hours learning the tricks to develop apps like Angry Birds. Both endeavors take dedicated time, perseverance and skill, but which side of the technology do you want your child to be on? Check out 12-year-old app developer Thomas Suarez. If you have kids, I’m pretty sure you’ll be thinking, “How do I get my child to turn out like that?”

Impressive, isn’t he? What I like most about Thomas Suarez is that he found something constructive that he likes and he’s going after it. He likes technology, and he is motivated enough to go beyond the fun and figure out how it works.

Suarez says finding resources to learn app development isn’t simple. “For soccer, you could go to a soccer team. For violin, you could get lessons for a violin,” he explained. “But what if you want to make an app?” While Suarez started an app club to help aspiring developers at his southern California middle school, most kids aren’t so lucky. But the resources are out there.

The next time your tech-savvy child is clamoring for time on the iPad, say, “Sure,” and sit down together and try a new web page: Developing Apps for iPad. It’s a great way to investigate what’s behind Angry Birds, World of Goo and all the other hugely popular games. You never know – maybe you have a future Steve Jobs just waiting for the tools to take a passion for tech to the next level.

Just like other parents, I want my child to have every advantage. I’ll pay for organics to help him grow strong; I’ll drive him to piano lessons to develop his brain; and I’ll make sure Scotch tape, construction paper, markers and paints are always handy to foster his creativity.

But, no matter how much the toddler tablet companies try to tell me that little kids need computers to be competitive, I will not believe those companies have the best interest of children at heart.

From the moment they’re born, babies are meant to explore their environments. Every touch, every smell, every sound is an adventure and you can practically watch their bright, little brains sorting and filing each new sensation – preparing to master the world. Tactile exploration is clearly the vital developmental need of the baby and toddler. So why in the world would anyone ever invent VINCI?

Winner of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s worst toy of 2011, the VINCI Touchscreen Mobile Learning Tablet website says, “Created by a mom and designed exclusively for toddlers and preschoolers, VINCI Early Learning Systems use the most advanced technology … to engage toddlers and preschoolers in an interactive learning that follows the three levels of VINCI Curriculum.”

Advanced technology and curriculum for an 18-month-old? Really?

Here’s what the CCFC had to say about why the VINCI took the top TOADY (Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young children) award: “The Vinci tablet looks so harmless, but it will suck hours of time that babies need to spend interacting with the world when their brains are the most vulnerable and in need of real interaction… What children need are toys that encourage them to use their imagination, instead of toys that do and say everything for them… Using bogus “educational claims,” this company preys on vulnerable parents of infants (many first-timers) who just want to do the best for their child. A caregiver can provide everything this “learning tool” offers — games, songs, lullabies, stories — for far less than the almost $500 price tag.”

Interestingly, when researching VINCI, I noted that early on the tablet was touted as a tablet for babies and toddlers, but within a few months the company shifted its message to say “toddlers and preschoolers.” Was that due to all the negative press they garnered about putting babies in front of computers? Probably. Sadly, I fear the VINCI company is strategically waiting for society to acclimatize to toddlers carrying around tablets. Then it will re-introduce the VINCI for babies, once we’ve drunk the technological Kool-Aid.

What do you think? Do “educational” tablets have a healthy place in the hands of small children? Comment here, as I’d love for someone to convince me I’m wrong. (My screen-limited son would really appreciate that, too!)

I’ve lost my temper with my son. I’ve lost my temper in the past so much that I’ve gone down to his temper-tantruming, door-slamming level. But only for a minute, and only until I take a few breaths on the quiet, adult, rational side of the slammed door. Then I remember that mimicking his bad behavior simply reinforces to him the idea that our family yells (it doesn’t, mostly) and our family slams doors (again, not usually). Rather than returning his frustration and anger, obviously I need to “use my words” and talk it out rationally. (Of course he’s only 8, and most of the time what I really need to do is get him go to sleep.)

But what if he’s 15 years old and has just aired private, angry, family grievances for all to see on the internet? If you haven’t seen the video of one father’s online response to his daughter’s inappropriate Facebook post, take 8 minutes and 23 seconds and join the 26,826,770 who have viewed it on YouTube:

All parents have made a mistake (or two, or three, or ten) in their lives. Embarrassing things that they don’t want their children (or the world) to know about. Mistakes are how we learn, but usually they don’t define us. If we’re lucky, our bad behavior helps us grow and we’re able to move past it to become better people and better parents. And when it comes to social media, one of the most important lessons that we need to instill in kids is to not air grievances in an online space. There your mistakes will define you forever.

While I understand and sympathize with the father’s frustration, airing his anger online has now defined him and his daughter for more than 26 million YouTube viewers, and it’s never going away. Does his daughter have good qualities? Surely she does. But it will be years before anyone cares about those. To nearly 27 million people, Hannah will always be a 15-year-old spoiled brat who disrespected her parents on Facebook. That’s a hard mistake to overcome, thanks to her father’s over-the-top response. As the adult, he should have known better.

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Social media and me

February 5, 2012

Hi there! I’m Laura Brigham. I attend University of Nevada, Reno, and will be finishing a master’s in journalism specializing in interactive media in December 2012.  In addition to being a student, I am also a wife and the mother of an 8-year-old.

My objective in blogging is to chronicle the challenges and triumphs of parenting in a digital world. How much technology should kids be exposed to? How soon? What will all the screen time do to a developing brain? Just like every parent, I want to do the right thing. Science says, “Not too much technology too soon.” Media says, “This app will make your child smarter.” Society says, “Everyone’s doing it.” Children beg, plead and bargain to download the latest and greatest game or app. Even the most staunch no-screen parents throw up their hands.

Through this blog, I plan to bring you the research and commentary I find about raising a digital native – the pros, the cons and the you’ve-got-to-be-kiddings. Also, I’ll share my experiences, best practices and strategies for finding the most beneficial ways to integrate technology into your children’s lives without sacrificing traditional skills (skills like making eye contact during a face-to-face conversation or being able to wait at a restaurant table without thumbs busy on a NintendoDS).

As the moderator and event planner for a local moms website for three years and a former stay-at-home mom who’s had lots of time on the playground, I’ve watched many parenting styles. If a mom hands her 3-year-old the smartphone to keep him busy, is it going to matter when he’s 20? I like to think that as long as we love our children and provide a healthy, nurturing environment, all will be well. But what do you think? Can tech overload (dare I say indulgence) really change a child?

I invite you to share stories of your own family’s experience with television, Nintendo, Wii, iPads, smartphones and the like. Please let me know what you think of my posts, and together we can grow capable, caring, well-rounded children (who will grow up to invent new technologies to stress out the parents of 2030!).

Thanks, and I’m looking forward to this journey down the tech highway!

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