Memo to Parents: Use the ‘off’ button

This week, Krista Tippett – host of the show Being — is talking with Sherry Turkle, head of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self.

Turkle has written a new book called “Alone Together,” which wrestles with the idea that communications technology (Twitter, Facebook, texting, smartphones, etc.) are linking us more efficiently and isolating us at the same time.

Go here to listen to their absolutely compelling conversation.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about and wrestling with the last few years, not as a journalist but as a parent.

Increasingly, the natural spaces of privateness and aloneness that protected us and our families from America’s hungry, churning popular culture, have collapsed.

The car during a long drive.  A walk in the woods.  The bedroom.  Dinner time.  This essential terrain has more or less evaporated for many families.

Think of it as the communications equivalent of urban sprawl.

It’s challenging enough for grown-ups.  I work in the profession where the term “crackberry” first came into widespread parlance.

But in my experience, kids have almost no context, no frame of reference, for how and when this technology is necessary, helpful or appropriate.

For a lot of people growing up now, the idea that there is such thing as an ‘off’ button seems foreign, alien, bizarre.

Turkle and Tippett speak intelligently and with nuance about this massive social experiment that we’ve embarked upon.

What is happening to a family that is effectively hard-wired into the cultural mass mind all the time?  We don’t know really.

They make a strong argument that we all — grown-ups and kids alike — need to be much more aggressive about turning it all off.

If the natural spaces for family and privacy are gone, then we have to work harder to create deliberate space for these crucial, vital things.

I’ve had good experience on this front.  My son Nicholas is, false modesty aside, a really cool, interesting, thoughtful15-year-old.

Occasionally, other parents will ask me about our approach, in the vein of How did you do it?

And mostly, in all honesty, it’s all about Nicholas being Nicholas.  He’s just a good egg.

But I will take credit for the early decision to not have a television in our home, or a video-game console.

I know.  It sounds Luddite.  It sounds like the stuff of hippy communes.  But really, no.

We’re a profoundly normal family.  We go to movies, we like theme parks.  We love pop music and, indeed, Popular Culture of all stripes.

We just wanted all that stuff to not be so intimately, inexorably wired into our home, our heads, and our private lives.

This year, we made a similar decision to turn off Nicholas’s texting account.   This doesn’t mean that he’s living out an episode of ‘Lost.’

He still has plenty of ways to communicate with his wired-in friends and has adapted just fine.

But this simple act — hitting the ‘off’ button — allowed us to claw back just a little space, throwing up one more fragile rampart around our terrain, our lives, our family.

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10 Responses to “Memo to Parents: Use the ‘off’ button”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    To each his own but forgive me for saying most people realize, sooner or later, the next new thing quickly becomes old junk.
    3D? It has become junk several times over since I was a kid and the first 3D movies hit the scene along with 3D comic books.
    While TVs become larger and larger, people buy into the idea of watching TV on small screen phones and other assorted small screen junk. This makes sense?
    100′s of TV stations with very little worth watching. Reality TV? No such thing. As soon as the cameras start, reality vanishes.
    Internet social sites? These are little better than writing on the subway walls.
    What I’m saying is that all of this is much ado about nothing.
    Don’t get too excited. I doubt your kids are as exited about all this techno junk as you are.

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  2. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian – The point should be that limits are good – electronic stuff and everything else – they (the kids ) need something to struggle against. Be careful about being smug so early in the process ;-). If your 15-year old is still a great kid – you’ve either got the lid on too tight, and all **** is just about to break loose, or the kid is really good at keeping stuff secret (only slightly facetious). You have to wait till they’re 25.

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  3. Walker says:

    Pete Klein, I wish you were right, but I see kids hiking in the mountains, and paddling lakes and streams with ear buds glued in place, and, of course, checking cell phones all the time everywhere. For that matter their parents are doing the same thing– can’t tell you the number of cell phone calls I’ve heard made from mountain summits. To me, it looks like an illness. People need to reconnect to what being alone in nature is (or anywhere else, for that matter).

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  4. Walker says:

    And Peter, I hope you’re wrong for Brian’s sake, but I saw just what you’re talking about happen to my niece. I’m hoping she’ll pull through it, but boy she’s a mess right now.

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  5. Mervel says:

    Adults use this stuff as much as or more than kids. I don’t think we can say this is an issue for teenagers.

    You did the right thing in making an early decision to not have a t.v. my hats off I wish we would have done that.

    We just set some rules on electronic use. Our kids don’t get cell phones until 15, (although we will probably cave with our youngest), also no electronic use during dinner, we don’t answer the phone and for sure all cell phones are off. Hiking, camping, fishing, none of the stuff is allowed to be brought along.

    But for our kids they really they use this stuff as a backdrop to boredom; when a friend comes over when they are having real fun playing outside or whatever they don’t really want to use the stuff.

    I honestly find it a bigger problem between my wife and I than with our kids.

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  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Kids personalities and values are pretty much established by the time they’re 5 or 6. If you’ve done a good job til then chances are they’ll be decent people when they’re 12 or 24. Between 12 and 24 all bets are off. But use of electronic devices wont make all that much difference. If you’ve established good habits with other things they’ll carry over, with a little prompting.

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  7. MrSandwich says:

    Merval is on to something with the “family dinner”. Growing up there was one constant. Dinner is at 5:30 and you’ll be there. No phones are answered, no TV and we converse like a family. That was 15 years ago and family dinner was on the decline then.

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  8. erb says:

    While I respect Turkle’s research, I find her conclusions suspect. She makes assumptions that communication via text or email is somehow less real than, say, a telephone conversation, or that emotional attachment to an inanimate object is profoundly disturbing. Didn’t she have a teddy bear when she was a child? Are the letters from soldiers to their loved ones not full of honest thoughts and feelings, feelings that they may never be able to express within the social confines of a face-to-face meeting?

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  9. Pete Klein says:

    Everything in moderation, and that includes TV and all the other electronic stuff. All are tools that can be properly used or misused.
    To not have a TV (again to each his/her own) but to me it borders on sticking your head in the sand. More power is gained by not turning the TV on or by turning it off than can possibly be gained by not having one to turn on or off.
    I began life without a TV. Think we got our first TV when I was about 6 or 7.
    I could live without it but would not want to go without a radio.
    I have a cell phone now for a little over a year but have used it only a few times when I travel out of the area. And this is not because cell phone service in Hamilton County is poor. It’s because I don’t want to be bothered by people.
    Up here, I think more and better broadband is far more important than expanded cell phone coverage. Just remember, a land line works when cell phones don’t.
    Safety? I’ll bet talking on a cell phone while driving has caused more deaths and injury than cell phones have ever helped to save a life.

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  10. Walker says:

    Pete, I’m pretty sure it makes no sense to pay $30 or $40 a month to not watch TV, especially as you can now watch way more than I could ever stand to watch on Netflix for $10 a month.

    We stopped watching TV more or less by accident, but once we got used to it, it seemed a great blessing to be without it. As to comparing not having TV to sticking your head in the sand, I lean towards thinking that developing a TV habit is a _major_ form of sticking your head in the sand.

    Nice point about more deaths caused than prevented by cell coverage!

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