Holly Robinson

Holly Robinson
Massachusetts, USA
December 03
Journalist Holly Robinson is the author of the novel Sleeping Tigers and The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir. Visit her web site at www.authorhollyrobinson.com.


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NOVEMBER 3, 2010 12:53PM

Kids + Computers = The Perfect Match

Rate: 14 Flag

A few days ago, a friend stopped by while I was working at home. My 13 year-old son was home, too. As we passed the living room, my friend said, “How long will you let your son stay on the computer?”

I shrugged. “I don't know. Until it's time to do something else.”

“What? That's criminal!” My friend made a face. You know the face: the I'm-a-better-Mom-than-you-are face. “I let my boys have an hour a day on the computer. Tops. Then I kick 'em outside.”

“Well,” I said, and then stopped. What else was there to say? “You're a better parent than I am?” “Your kids probably have bigger muscles?”

I've been a mother for 22 years now. With three boys and two girls in our household, I've been doing battle with screens for almost that long. I still get exhausted remembering how hard I fought to keep our two oldest sons off the computer. Every time I made a rule, they'd find a loophole. Like the time I told them they couldn't have screen time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends, and discovered – weeks later – that they were setting their alarms for 5 a.m. to ensure that they'd get their four hours of World of Warcraft in before breakfast.

Recently, one of my sons confessed, “You know, I was playing computer games until, like, 2 a.m. in high school. I just waited until you went to bed.” That was around the time that he was hooked on Everquest, an online role-playing game that drew in so many viewers that it was widely known as “Evercrack” http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/05/28/earlyshow/living/caught/main510302.shtml.

And where is that son now? He graduated from a great college, and found a job three days after graduation in an advertising firm in Boston. A company that specializes, by the way, in supporting web sites for their clients.

Our oldest son, meanwhile, graduated from a great college as well, and has made his way to Los Angeles, where he's working as a production assistant in the film industry. He was just named second assistant director for a Web TV pilot.

My youngest son, the last one at home, takes bass guitar lessons, does gymnastics, loves to rock climb and hike. But he's also on the computer every spare minute. Once in a while, it's homework related – his school gave him a great geography game to play online, and he can now name more countries on a map than I can. He also does math and science online rather than bring home textbooks. Usually, though, his time on the computer is spent pursuing his own interests.

He built a hovercraft after seeing someone do it online, out of a shower curtain, a piece of plywood, and a leaf blower. It actually worked. He learned all about microwaving potato chip bags and building Lego guns through Youtube. He plays his bass along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queen online. (“Did you dress like that in the 80's, Mom?” he asked recently. “God, I hope not.”) He learned how to do flips on the trampoline by watching kids demonstrate on Youtube. And, lately, he has been learning the algorithms for solving the Rubik's Cube from Dan Brown online http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsQIoPyfQzM.

Does he read books, this boy of mine? Only if I make him. Which I do. I am, after all, a writer and a book collector, and sometimes I fantasize about having one of those dreamy kids who stays up all night reading books like I did. But, let's face it: kids seem well-equipped to learn online. This particular son of mine knew all about how BP was going to clean up its spill before I did; he also followed the recent elections online. He can tell me where the most shark attacks occur in the world and he's currently looking up the value of individual Magic cards – his new obsession. If this kid wants to know something, he Googles it.

“It's an age of instant gratification,” my sniffy mom friend declared, when I pointed out how much my son learns on the computer. “These kids don't know how to work hard. The computer is making kids stupider.”

Her declaration echoed that popular article, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” originally published by Nicholas Carr a couple of years ago in The Atlantic Monthly. Carr's piece led to fiery debates about how human intelligence is changing. Read a great summary of that debate put together by the Pew Research Center here: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1499/google-does-it-make-us-stupid-experts-stakeholders-mostly-say-no.

Maybe it's true that access to technology, and to such rapid fire information, is making our children seem like they have shorter attention spans. My son recently declared that when he's reading, “I feel like I'm not doing anything.” On the computer, on the other hand, his hands are engaged, and the visuals on the screen are more entertaining than those black-and-white ants marching across the pages of his books. Books are slow, he complains.

Let me repeat: I still try to make him read half an hour a day, if nothing more. Yet, I'm also well aware that I, too, would have learned on the computer if I'd had one growing up. I don't buy my friend's argument that my boys have had their learning stunted by the computer. Whether children absorb information by reading or online, learning new things makes them want to learn more. Children are inherently curious, active learners. Aren't the skills of building cities and fighting battles online – especially done in teams – worthy? And isn't the ability to discover, sift through, and analyze new information essential to survival in the digital age?

There is an infinite amount of knowledge. Why not soak it up as fast as you can, in a community of online learners, game players, and musicians who come not just from your own neighborhood, but from around the world? For kids with computers, learning has no boundaries.

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Excellent article. Balance is key and what that looks like or needs to be differs for each child and family. Helping to keep a love of learning in tact in our children is really our job as parents and educators. You seem to have done that.
Very well said. My son spent hours on the computer as a kid--but like your own sons, he had many other interests. Obviously a lot of the media criticism comes from a sense of certain industries, TV in particular, being in competition with the online world. You almost never hear anything positive about it on TV--it's a scary world of predators and scams according to them. Rated.
I get this. I could have written it. But it's funny how it never goes away, that secret nagging doubt about addiction. And that's always been my concern, the idea that something--anything--is controlling us rather than us controlling it. When all's said and done, what is is. Which is another way of saying the culture has changed and those of us who went along kicking and screaming are more in tune with the new culture than those whose kicking and screaming was more effective. I'm still amazed when I hear a parent brag about how her three high schoolers aren't allowed on Facebook or some such. I wonder if she's doing them any favors, keeping them so out of the loop of their own generation. But I am also clear-eyed about the consequences for all of us, and that comes in the form of attention. I think there is good evidence emerging that the new technologies do in fact, at a very synaptic level, reward the instant gratification circuits and starve the ones meant for more thorough pursuit. We shall see where this road leads...
Much as computer use among young people is a worthy debate, your "friend" broke a real taboo by criticizing you like that. Unless she were an equal partner in their caretaking, she has no say unless you were being abusive or truly neglectful. Real friends are tactful enough to keep their superiority to themselves. Would she feel as free to tell you something negative about your appearance?
My son is 4 years old and wants his own computer! The budget certainly does not permit that, especially at his age, but he does play with other toys and helps to clean up after himself. I would agree with the other comments here when they say balance is the key. And some kids can maintain balance spending a lot of time on the computer. The key is how do they act when they are not computing.
completely agree with you!
Hot damn. Thanks for this... I was one of those kids, and still am, in a way. Video games and the Internet spark the imagination and - believe it or not - exercise important portions of the brains that, ironically, don't get exercised by other "modern" activities (think hindbrain and fast-twitch reflexes, both of which our ancestors depended for their lives on). I'm confident that both my work (software development) and my play (writing) benefit *greatly* from the time I spend online, in a multitude of ways...
It meant a lot to me to hear all of your comments below -- I fully expected to be soundly scolded. Guess I should've given OS readers a bit more credit...it was especially nice to hear from women who have, like me, felt guilty about letting their kids have "too much" screen time, as well as from you, Variant Fox, proof positive that you can play AND learn with your favorite tool...on and on and on...thanks for writing, all.
Well argued. Point taken. :)
Thanks for this piece. You say it so well. As the mom of 3 boys, two of whom learn differently (is that relevent? hard to say), I sure do know that "I'm a better mom than you are" face that you describe. You go, Mom, you gotta go with your gut, and love them with all your heart, that's my philosophy. All three of my guys are so different. All love the internet in different ways, although son#1 never cared for the video games bit at all, and son #3 writes his own online physics quizzes. All three also played outside, built forts in the woods, caught frogs in the pond and threw pots on the pottery wheel. All 3 have done well, though of course the jury is still out. They're good-hearted guys. They taught me that rules are made to be broken. They taught me that negotiation is messy but maybe that's why it's such a great learning tool. And, yeah, Mom, some of the games are violent, and some of them have words I don't like, but it's not your game, Mom. We moms do better when we are with our kids instead of drawing battle lines and when we recognize they are not really ours, except that we love them . . . . Yikes, parenthood is confusing.
I, being an ancient one, am of that old, newly discovered, school of thought which says that the purpose of education it to teach people how to learn - not, barring some basics, what to learn. Every generation has had its own, often very different, things it needed to learn.
With the best will in the world you cannot teach your children WHAT they will need to learn in the world they will live in. You can't even imagine the world they will live in; did your parents imagine the world you live in? But you can allow them to discover HOW to learn in that world. It that means that they will spend hours and hours at the keyboard, then so be it.
I loved reading. So much so that I was always torn between spending my allowance on reading material or batteries. The batteries were for the flashlight I needed to use to read under the covers until all hours of the night, of course. The library provided most of the reading material.
My parents tried everything they could to get me to "be like the other boys". This apparently involved such idiotic time-wasters a sports. I'd have preferred to watch grass grow. My books and my reading were everything to me. Oh how the other kids laughed at my reading - they don't laugh now. They laughed at me taking typing too. Typing was for "girls". They don't laugh at that anymore either - not when it takes them a half hour of hunt-n-peck typing to write a five sentence letter to someone - not when I can touch-type 70 wpm and write the same letter in less than a minute.
So leave them alone mommas and poppas. They're more in tune with what they'll need and how to obtain it than you'll ever be. Spend your time with them setting an example of how good people live and the principles of honesty, integrity, honour and respect. There is where you may shine as parents.
Should be a required read for teachers and parents. Good writing.
Faith, you're so right -- each child is different, and Skypixie, absolutely: kids learn best by watching what we do, not by listening to what we say. Thanks for such insightful comments.
Excellent post. I struggle with this every day with my three children. Now that my oldest son is in high school he's on the computer even more because of all the work he has to do on it. I agree that it is a great resource for learning. I get annoyed, though, when my kids are glued to video games for hours when it's a gorgeous day outside. I guess like anything else, moderation is the key. As long as my kids still read and enjoy the outdoors I'm happy they can benefit from all computers have to offer.
Reason #1 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/14/oxford-scientist-brain-change

Reason #2 - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1153583/Social-websites-harm-childrens-brains-Chilling-warning-parents-neuroscientist.html

Reason #3 - http://www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=13126 - This is the inch deep, mile wide theory, the best of the 3 reasons thus far.

Reason #4 - I can't find this right now, but it was a study of connected users and newbie internet users. MRI scans revealed that the newbie's, some of whom were Sr. Citizens, had significant brain activity changes and brain activity mimicking connected users within 1 week of plugging in. Their brains, like the already connected users, were firing in the frontal and parietal lobes in multiple areas (single areas of the brain were active previously), and at rates much faster than before. This is good, right? Well, if you're a race car driver, yes. If you're trying to concentrate, or say read a whole book when not forced, not so much... And, kids especially are going to notice, or more importantly not going to notice, loss in higher brain function like compare/contrast, higher math (and, most people can't do multi-variable calculus, but now not even the people who can do it can do it...), and so forth.

But, everyone's 'gut' seems to agrees with you, so never mind.