Technology and Our Children

JimIt was Mother’s Day this past weekend. For many of us, we either have mothers, or are mothers, or have mothers of our children. For those of us lucky enough to have one or all of the aforementioned in our lives, we celebrated with them.

But something that occurred to me while out and about this most navel-gazing of cities, New York. How much of the time parents spend with their children is really time spent with their children?

I saw so many moms on mother’s day doing less cooing and more ignoring than I think I have in a long time; kids were just staring at the tablet; a family completely apart in their togetherness.

I know it comes up from time to time, the discussion about how early is too early for children to have screen time. Or whether or not children should have any. When you are tired of little Aidan or Sophia’s antics, is it okay to hand them a device loaded with unboxing videos and go back to your own smartphone powersurfing? And what if the kids are on the cusp of social media use? Then what?

Well, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, that’s for sure. Abstinent prohibition isn’t going to work, at least not very well. But what can be done? Are we going to raise a generation of slack-jawed, glassy-eyed, sleep-deprived technodrones who can zip, zap and tap any piece of technology to life, but if you asked them a question they couldn’t form words into a sentence and then deliver that sentence to you while looking you in the eye?

Let me preface my comments by saying that I do not have children, though I like them a lot. But I do have 4 younger sisters, 9 nieces and nephews, and, like, 21 first cousins, many of whom have children themselves… so, I’ve, like, seen kids before and been around a lot of them.

How should young people be engaged with technology, and how should that engagement be dealt with?

Well, we aren’t going to put the toothpaste back in the tube. The best we can do is to teach them how to brush their teeth.

1. Don’t need as much toothpaste as you like… seeing the paste emerge from the tube is a mesmerizing, hypnotic experience, and leads to excess. But too much can lead to swallowing that stuff; and that can actually make you kind of sick. The amount of material needs to be regulated. But the only way to do that is to SHOW how much is appropriate. An awful lot of parents are mobile device junkies themselves. I’ve seen two parents, sitting across from each other at a table at E.J.’s diner, having a weekend breakfast with the kids. And the parents are each on their respective mobile devices, not paying attention to each other or their child, as the child smears grape jelly on the floor. Kids are mimics. They learn by example. Show them how much tooth paste needs to be on the brush.

2. There’s more to brushing your teeth than paste and brush. Don’t forget flossing. We’re still dealing with teeth, but it takes more than a schmear of Colgate to get the job done. There is labor to be done in maintaining good hygiene, be it technological, or oral.

3. The mouth is good for more than just a vehicle for teeth. What’s the point of having well-kept teeth if all they do is sit behind your lips, or come out only for chewing (or biting)? Sometimes words have to come out of that mouth. And much of the time those words have to make sense. SPEAK to children. And teach them that speaking is not something to be avoided. Let them show off those pearly whites! I’ve interviewed more than my fair share of job applicants who can’t looking you in the eye, or string words together to make sentences that mean anything. Interlocution is still important, and learning how to incorporate that into a device-driven world is incumbent upon all of us.

4. We are not a slave to the brush and the paste. No need to carry that brush and paste around all day, brushing every time you sip your coffee or have a piece of cake for the assistant’s birthday. Technology, like oral hygiene, is a good thing, but obsession of any kind is dangerous, and can lead to distraction from the world at hand.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.