Family life is stressful is today’s world. My family is just the three of us and our cat. Our busy kid is somehow doing sports, martial arts and piano…though I always said I wouldn’t over-schedule! Work is busy preparing for my book launch! We moved this summer and spent our “vacation fund” on the move. We are looking for that “summer feeling,” but have made it to the beautiful Lake Michigan beaches a mile from our new place exactly once.
I’m sure you can relate. Other families I know seem stretched, too. My mother-in-law tells stories about spending entire summers on lakeside beaches with moms and kids (and maybe even nannies?!) while “the fathers” went to work during the week. What?! This world (and division of labor) sounds completely foreign to me. What would that kind of life even feel like? When you think of what your world is like today, you’d probably agree that it’s quite difficult to imagine.
Technology Makes Things… Better?
A lot of parents I know blame technology for the pace of today’s world, and that’s understandable. When our son listlessly opens 30 apps in ten minutes, binge-watches 3-4 episodes of a show, or generally goes into “screen monster” mode, I feel a flash of reflexive guilt. I know I am not alone in this feeling. I take all the credit when my role as a “technology mentor” opens the door to family fun and harmony, but I am quick to blame the technology when things don’t go so well.
But for all the challenges, I try to look at technology in a different way. When technology brings us together—a favorite family movie, the shared enjoyment of trash-talking while my son plays his favorite baseball app with his dad, or our whole family cracking up at Siri’s hilarious responses to our iPhone queries, it makes us all feel good. And sure—I’ll take all the credit! But some of these things wouldn’t be possible without technology.
But What About Pokémon Go?
The conversation around Pokémon Go intrigues me. If you haven’t heard about Pokémon Go, it’s a game that feels more like a craze at the moment. Kids (and adults too!) use their mobile phones to track and “capture” cartoon characters to compete for points and rankings. What makes this a very different phenomenon from other game “crazes” is that 1) it’s a virtual layer over the “real” world, and 2) you can only succeed if you get out and walk to each of the game’s many locations.
Parents are saying that playing together with their kids is a positive experience because it gets kids outside, but they are also bemoaning the idea that the app “makes” you go outside. And of course, there are a lot of dangers “out there” from predators to busy streets and highways. It doesn’t help that game players are walking around staring down at their smartphones.
Though parents like the social aspect of bringing the family—or groups of kids—together, they still worry that these groupings may be “Alone Together,” a phrase technology researcher Sherry Turkle helpfully offers to describe these moments. We’ve all seen two people out on a date at a restaurant, sitting across from one another, but each staring at their phones. When we are spending time together, yet disconnected because we are so involved with what’s happening “out there” in the digital world.
Pokémon Go… or Pokémon Stop?
So let’s play some Pokémon Go! It’s my job to stay up on digital trends, so we’ll call it research, right? I can tell you, that so far, we’ve had an amazing time with our kid out in the neighborhood meeting some Pokés, and some real wildlife, too! On our last excursion, we discovered a new pie shop in the neighborhood too!
When we have positive experiences like this, we feel great. We are winning techno-parenting! One family with a kid on the Autism Spectrum found that interacting with Pokémon Go (and other young players)n unlocked new social opportunities and flexibility for their child.
But when a kid wanders onto a highway or simply has a Poké-related meltdown it can feel like we are “losing” techno-parenting. One mom went from super enthusiast to frustrated realist when her kids started fighting, demanding to be driven all over town and throwing tantrums about the game. The funny thing (and we all do it) is when we feel like technology is supporting our parenting, we take the credit. I am a fabulous parent and I’ve brought my kid the best, most educational apps and look at my family flourish. But when things aren’t great, we want to blame the technology. “If only the school hadn’t sent home those iPads, my kid would be getting his homework done.” “If only I couldn’t check my email on vacation, I’d be a more connected parent.”
A little perspective is in order though. As a rule, technology doesn’t determine our moods, interactions, and relationships as much as we may think it does. As Alexandra Samuel points out, parents should resist “techno-shame.” Even though sometimes other parents act smug about their brilliant approach to screentime, and other parents act ashamed of their kids’ technological engagements, there is truly no “winning” and “losing.” We all just have to find what works for our own families.
I’m not sure if we’ll stick with Pokémon Go. Like any other immersive game, I try to have a strategy for my kid. I don’t want to foster the “screen monster” in him, and I certainly don’t want it to be the cause of public meltdowns. So we’ll take it with step by step, and co-create solutions to what isn’t working. For you, that might mean not starting at all. Don’t feel pressured to jump on the next trend. There is no perfect approach to raising digital natives; just do what fits your family.
Judgments are not helpful. You are not winning or losing parenting in the digital age. You are living with it, and so are your kids.
Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives.
Photo credit: “FL-Trail Center” by Virginia State Parks is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Changed from original: Added text overlays.