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From smart phones to iPods, tablets to laptops, PCs to TVs, technology is wired into 21st century family life. Children have access to a dizzying array of tech devices, both at school and at home.
Parents are concerned: How much technology is enough to engage children in learning and stay connected, and how much is too much? And with all the tech devices demanding attention, are family chats around the kitchen table becoming passé?
“With so many personal technology devices in homes, there’s potential for family members to isolate themselves,” says EDC’s Shelley Pasnik. “Family members might not come together around a common shared experience.”
As director of EDC’s Center for Children and Technology, Pasnik leads a staff of researchers, instructional designers, technology specialists, and writers in investigating the roles that technology can play in improving teaching and learning within classrooms, schools, and communities. She says technology doesn’t have to drive a wedge between parents and children. In fact, it can help them connect.
Pasnik: If you look back to the 1930s and ’40s, you would find shared media tools in the home even then. That’s what radio and television were—even the family telephone was shared.”
Now technology is becoming more and more personalized, as the tools become smaller, portable, and affordable. Families can have a TV in every room, multiple tablets and laptops, and a cell phone in everyone’s pocket. Data bears out that across many economic strata, people of different ages—grandparents, parents, and kids—are interacting on their own with their devices and the content they deliver. As a result, parents justifiably have anxiety about the impact of this technology and information on their children. It can be a kind of “techno-panic.”
Pasnik: Active parenting always has to do with balance and creating many different opportunities for many different experiences. Social engagement, creativity, and conversations, and sharing discoveries are all necessary for children’s health and well-being. So if you drop a new tool or device into that mix, it’s good to think about how it will support or impede your child’s development.
Portable devices are creating opportunities for families to engage in activities together. It doesn’t have to be isolating like sitting at a desktop computer. Multiple family members can cozy up with an iPad and read books or play a game together. Parents can build on the play with children and provide direction. Just as they’d get down on the floor and play other games with their children, they can experience together the content technology delivers.
Pasnik: Digital games are quite popular right now, and both parents and students are playing them. One of our big video game projects called Possible Worlds looks at the use of hand-held games to explore different science concepts. For example, one of the modules explores photosynthesis. Parents might be surprised to see their children coming home with a Nintendo DS as part of their homework, but they can be part of that exploration with their children.
As far as children spending too much time playing video games, it’s all about the volume. If a single experience seems to be taking over, mix it up. Think about turning the device off or picking a game that involves multiple players rather than a single one. Have conversations during or after with children about the game play.
Media devices change, but the strategies for supporting kids aren’t new. This applies to their playing video games or using the computer or watching TV—anything with a screen. Set limits and screen time rules, and supervise and engage children during screen time. Make sure screen devices are in common areas of the home, and other non-screen activities are available.
Pasnik: Grandparents and parents might get overwhelmed if they don’t understand the technology. But they do understand their children. They know their child’s limits and when he or she gets tired or frustrated. They also know helpful versus unhelpful behavior, and they understand life’s situations. So that’s what they can bring to conversations with their children.
Parents can engage with their children around the content that technology delivers, whether it’s a game or a book or homework. They can ask questions and guide discussions with children. They can bring curiosity and a sense of play. When that happens, it creates a whole new experience. That’s when things get even more interesting.
Originally published on December 18, 2012