GUEST BLOG POST: Your iPad Reminds Me of My Pet Rock by Victoria Fisher, author, Raising Children in the 11th Hour
The answer to this and similar questions is always the same, behind a choked laugh. “I didn’t have any of that, but I had a great pet rock.” And then he launches into a facetious little lecture about all the great things he used to do with his pet rock, as well as expounding on the endless possibilities for children blessed with pet rocks.
My husband was 35 when our first child was born. His mother (our kids’ grandmother) was 36 when she had my husband, making her 71 years old when her first grandchild was born. She talks often of the depression she was born into and how they survived their first decade and a half on the Missouri farm, an upbringing that very much affected her approach to child rearing and life. My husband is not entirely joking when he talks about his pet rock. He and his three brothers had toys, of course. And they played sports. But mostly they had bikes, the outdoors and each other.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, even eighties, was certainly a different picture of childhood than what we see today. Screens, large and small, are ever pervasive in ours and our children’s lives. And in our current climate of stranger danger most parents can attest to the fact that kids spend too little time engaged in unstructured play outside.
In a report published by Common Sense Media, fifty percent of children under the age of eight (and forty percent of children ages two to four) have access to a smartphone, iPad or some other mobile media device. The same study claims that a quarter of all their online time is spent using an iPod, iPad, cellphone or similar device. My third grader has begun reporting that “so-and-so in my class has their own iPhone.” This is old news to my fifth grader, who has seen the number of friends with smartphones go up every year, especially after Christmas. Kids usually love technology and therefore need no encouragement to engage in it. When our family invested in a front loading washer and dryer our son became obsessed with laundry, just so he could program the digital settings! (“Mom, can I please do a load of laundry?”) I am convinced that what keeps our kids from wishing out loud for a smartphone of their own is the fact that my husband and I still have low-tech flip phones and no texting plan, and no intention to change that anytime soon.
I both admire and fear the smartphone and its effects. I confess that if I was not a mother I would probably have one. And I know the only way we parents can truly protect our children from the dangers of the internet is to robustly educate and then educate some more. My fear did not exactly diminish after reading an article in the Washington Post, which related the story of a couple of high school boys who ordered prostitutes on their iPhones whilst away on a school-sponsored football trip. This article also claimed that it is in middle school that “legions of boys” begin downloading porn.
These are perhaps extreme cases of the most horrific technology effects, but the endless hours spent surfing, facebooking, playing video games and watching TV instead of more traditional activities, such as playing outside and being engaged in face-to-face conversations have documented negative effects even without prostitutes and porn. One such study was conducted by the University of Bristol in the UK and published by the journal Pediatrics, which found that children who are engaged in screen activity for more than two hours per day are at greater risk for psychological problems than kids who don’t. And contrary to what some people believe, regular physical exercise cannot undo this impact, according to the study. The risk for psychological problems is double for kids who spend four hours of screen time per day. Other sedentary activities such as reading and homework were not associated with the same risk.
When Cruella DeVil (in 101 Dalmatians) says about video games, “Someone designs them!? What a senseless thing to do with your life!” I can’t help but sympathize just a little with her point of view. And it is not just because Glenn Close is so marvelous in her role. I sympathize because my son would sometimes rather read, ride his bike or pound away on the piano and yet he resists my efforts to pry him away from the Wii because he has to have a certain number of points, or get to a certain level before the next important game character is “unlocked.” So I echo Cruella’s question in exasperation: “Someone designs them this way!?”
Every family will have to make their own plan for dealing with technology and how to teach children about its benefits and potential dangers. Any approach we choose will have to evolve and adapt as time goes on and needs change. Right now, for our family, our approach includes a singular computer as the only internet device in our house on which to practice the first lessons of safe surfing. It also includes an open and frank dialog about internet benefits and potential pitfalls. But most importantly it includes shutting off the TV, logging off the web and sending the kids out to play. Every day! Because what kids need these days is so obviously a pet rock!
 “Program for the Study of Children and Media.” Reviews and Ratings for Family Movies, TV Shows, Websites, Video Games, Books and Music. June 26, 2012. http://www.commonsensemedia.org/research.
 Dvorak, Petula. “No Surprise to Find Kids Wading into Digital Swamp. The Washington Post, September 11, 2012.
 Page, A. S., A. R. Cooper, P. Griew, and R. Jago. “Children’s Screen Viewing Is Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity.” Pediatrics 126, no. 5 (2010): E1011-1017. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1154.
Victoria Fisher is originally from Sweden and Norway but she and her American husband, Mark, have made their home in Norman, Oklahoma for the past twelve years. Together they have four bilingual children between the ages of three and ten. She is the author of the recently released book “Raising Children in the 11th Hour – Standing Guard in an Age of Marketing, Media and Madness“. Visit http://www.facebook.com/RaisingChildrenInThe11thHour.