The XX Factor

The Kids-and-Tech Tipping Point

Wait-a whole article, in the NYT Styles section, on families and “screen time” without any warnings about the perils of screen ubiquity? Can they do that?

No, they can’t. There it is, middle of the second page both in print and online. The headline may be ” Quality Time, Redefined ” and the message that evenings spent in parallel play on laptops and gadgets may not be so bad, or even such a change, but the author did include a cautionary note: Relying on “technology to establish emotional intimacy” may “increase our sense of of feeling inudated and empty.” It’s a reference to a book, not a quote (Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other , aptly enough).

The real experts are saved to make the argument that Turkle’s is really much hand-wringing about nothing. Multiple devices providing entertainment reduce family discord, increase physical togetherness, and are nothing new. Witness, for example, this old-school scene at our house: husband with his (paper) crossword; me with my (physical) magazine; eldest reading Tin Tin; and the younger three coloring, Lego-ing, or just petting the dog and staring into space. Family parallel play not only isn’t new, it’s necessary. As psychology professor Robert Levant says in the article, “people who think every minute we’re together we have to connect are going to drive each other crazy.”

But even with the requisite mental health disclaimer, the article wordlessly accepts the idea that even the kids identified in the piece-11, 10, 8, and a no-age-specified preschooler-will have personal access to their own digital “plane of existence.” (That the 15-year-old probably does goes without question.) Isn’t that new? I thought we were temporarily settled on the current middle-class-and-up parenting paradigm: a sort of meta-helicopter, post-Tiger Mom ironic monitoring of everything our kids do with an eye toward mental and emotional health and, of course, achievement. I thought we were madly driving them to all of their activities and Kumon tests and desperately trying to fit in a screening of Race to Nowhere , which doesn’t, of course, count toward their daily or weekly ration of “screen time.” Where does spending our evenings individually wired fit into that?

It doesn’t. What’s new is that it doesn’t have to. It’s no longer a question of if your kids will lose themselves in their own little chunk of tech, but when. Helicopter or free-range; public, private, or home school; it doesn’t matter. Technology access for kids is extremely limited in our house-but it’s there. Those idyllic old-school moments described above? They happen. But you could easily snap a picture of every one of us (except the dog) with an electronic toy or tool in hand. An article from the trend-seeking, your-worst-self-in-the-mirror gut-check Styles section that considers our relationship with technology without focusing on fears and limits reflects that while the relationship is changing, the relationship itself is a given. Built into the question of how our separate screens affect us is the assumption that however the parents of those clearly well-situated kids handle the way they interact with their apps, pads, and Wiis, the kids themselves will be just fine.