Anxiety and the Techno(t)parent

18 Mar

I’ve been feeling particularly – and inexplicably – anxious recently.  Me thinks the world might be “too much with me” – courtesy of technology.  And I’m wondering if our kids might be feeling the same.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m glad to be aware and informed about the world around me.  And I certainly don’t believe “ignorance is bliss”.  Technology has given us access to real-time news and information at mind-blowing speed, and we are informed  like never before with regards to global events.  We’re using digital tools to fuel humanitarian aid, lend support and connect with people and news far and wide.

But lately, the global news hasn’t been very good.  And from the nightmare still unfolding in Japan to unrest in the Middle East, to local tragedy, my heart has been aching at every turn.  If our kids are watching the news on TV or seeing these sad images online, I’ll bet some are also feeling the world’s grief – even if they’re not talking about it.

One important lesson I’ve learned through this Techno(t)parent experiment is “balance”.  And all the experts I’ve talked to have said media consumption should be done in moderation.  A self-professed news-addict, I’ve been deeply immersed in recent world events, and I’m wondering if that might be causing the anxiety.  It might just be time to bury my head in the sand a bit and “unplug.”

So this week, I’m limiting my screen time and focusing on the things I can control – working a good, honest day, getting home to my family, cooking a nourishing meal with love, and cherishing every second I have with the special people in my life.

Because sometimes, counting your blessings (without a calculator app) is important.

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Digital Lessons from PepsiCo’s B. Bonin Bough

17 Mar

I confess, I’m wildly inspired (and slightly intimidated) by the uber-early-adopters who attend the  South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas every year.  These people are basically the pioneers of the digital frontier – and I’m excited to learn as much as I can from the gurus that network, present and share there.

I recently watched this great mini-clip of PepsiCo’s B. Bonin Bough’s SXSW presentation:

My favorite is was Bough’s reference to “digital physical fitness”…

“Digital physical fitness is the ability to adapt to changes in a digital environment.  And how do you get digitally fit?  The same way you do physical fitness.  It requires training, commitment…rigor.  It requires you to push beyond the point when you want to say ‘no’.”

For late-adopters, this is an inspiring concept.  Just like going to the gym and “catching-up” physically, we can “catch-up” in the digital world too.  It takes some work, but it’s certainly doable – even in the ever-evolving tech environment.

Thanks, Mr. Bough, for the real-life perspective, and check out more of PepsiCo’s interesting contributions to  SXSW.

Time for this techno(t)parent to hit the digital gym!

Technology for Kids… And Babies?

16 Mar

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of Jeana Lee Tahnk’s Screen Play blog.   She recently posted a roundup of sites designed specifically for babies.  As a somewhat tech-cautious parent, I didn’t know how quickly I’d embrace sites designed specifically for babies, especially the BabyFirstTV site, which touts itself as “The First Site for Little Ones”. I decided to check BabyFirstTV out for myself.

This comprehensive site  is geared towards babies 18 months and older, offering both free and subscription-only games and lessons that introduce numbers, art, music, and language.  While some of the navigation was awkward, the content was age-appropriate and mostly educational, and there were no ads.  What I especially like is that the programming seems to have been developed with the support of an advisory board of credible experts.  (This info was hidden in the FAQ links, so I’m not sure how active this advisory board is… But it’s nice to see there’s some content oversight.)  The site also has a place for parents with questions, and offers videos in other languages for parents wanting to expose their kids to French or Spanish.

I’m happily surprised to say I’d be okay with my child interacting with this site occasionally.  My only concern is that it’s very easy for kids to “shop” online, and with a single click, they’re able to add a costly gift set to their parents’ shopping cart.   (Not sure how easy it is to actually “purchase,” but it’s a little worrisome.)  Other than that, this site seems like a fun, interactive way to engage babies at an early age.

What do you think?  How early should babies be interacting with technology?  Are sites like these of interest to you?  Or should parents wait until children are older to introduce their babies to websites?

Lovin’ Technology For Good

15 Mar

Spurred by my post on using technology to help those suffering in Japan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a huge Techno(t)parent shout-out to a classmate – Ben Collier – who is doing just that.  Ben’s blog –  Technology for Good – interesting, super smart and highlights organizations and people who are using tech to promote social and humanitarian causes.

Ben’s blog’s mission is great, his heart is in it, and it shows.

If my munchkin grew up to do what Ben’s doing, I’d be one proud techno(t)parent!

Thanks, Ben, for illustrating ways technology can be a powerful force for good on a global scale.

Mommy Blogs and the Rise of Train-Wreck TV

14 Mar

This well-written New York Times article by Lisa Belkin explores the world of successful Mommy Blogs, specifically Heather Armstrong’s popular Dooce.com. Armstrong’s blogging success is a great story, but the article subtly hints at the uglier side of personal blogging – the lack of privacy, the hate mail, the family drama, etc.  In fact, Armstrong brilliantly created a “hate mail” section for her blog, which, the article says, draws significant readership.

I recently wondered if there’s a connection between the rise in popularity of “personal” blogs (like Armstrong’s) and the rise in popularity of reality TV – both media channels driven by our culture’s fascination with real-time drama.  And then I wondered:  What role as parents, do we play in this media?

As parents in a world where centerfolds, snarky designers, Charlie-Sheen-type meltdowns and conflicted teen moms tend to draw significant attention (and cash), we have to ask ourselves: Does watching (or reading about) someone else’s crazy life slowly unravel make us somehow feel better about our own?  Or does it just mean we feel less alone in our journey?  What do our media choices say about us as parents?  And what are we teaching our kids through the drama these choices highlight?

A recent statement from Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication captured my concerns well:

“Sure, the media have been Charlie Sheen’s enablers. But he wouldn’t be getting wall-to-wall coverage if that didn’t win big ratings, so it’s the audience — us — who are his codependents. Is the attention making his behavior worse? Maybe. But the media didn’t invent people’s urge to rubberneck at car crashes.”

Now, before anyone gets up in arms, I’m in no way suggesting that Armstrong is of the Snooki or Charlie Sheen ilk.  Armstrong is a successful writer who has dedicated time, money and effort to cultivate her craft and build a trusting relationship with her audience.  She pioneered a market and has bravely shared her personal journey – the good, bad and the ugly – with the world in exchange for compensation and personal satisfaction.  And as the article highlights, she’s careful what she shares.

What I *am* commenting on, though, is “reality media” as a whole, and the increasing trend to openly share (and ultimately capitalize) on very personal, and often difficult challenges, fueled by conflict or addiction, and the audience’s role in fanning the fire.

Perhaps to make a blog a wild success, one could create (and then resolve) some sort of real-life drama…  But to that approach, I say “no thank you, very much”.  I’m happy with my chaotic, Snooki-free world.

And I’ll happily leave Ms. Armstrong to deal with the hate mail.

Help the Suffering in Japan

12 Mar

While Techno(t)parent is a parenting and technology blog, it’s also my personal soapbox.  One of the best things I think we can do for our children is to teach them compassion, and with regards to technology, to use it for good.   A CNN article titled:  Japan’s Earthquake:  How You Can Help is a great compilation of giving organizations that are mobilizing and collecting funds to help those suffering in Japan. 

In my first-ever donation-by-text, I’ve contributed to Save the Children.  It took 3 seconds, and was simple to do.  If this techno(t)parent can figure out how to donate using technology, so can you.

Please help those in need today.

Interview with “Parenting With Technology” Author Diane Kendall (Part III)

11 Mar

This is part 3 of my interview with parenting with technology expert Diane Kendall.  (Here’s the first post in the series.  Here’s the second post of three.)   THANK YOU Diane, for taking the time to share your wisdom!  For more of Ms. Kendall’s  spot-on advice and information, visit the Parents section of the “Power to Learn” site.

TNP:  What are the biggest drawbacks/dangers of technology for kids?  How can parents keep their kids safe?

DK: “Oversharing” is probably the biggest danger when it comes technology and kids. Most kids are willing to talk to anyone – online or off – that seems willing to listen, and without even meaning to, they can give away personal information that can lead to issues for themselves and their family. These issues can range from identity theft to being open to online predators to cyberbullying. It’s hard to learn what to share and what to keep to yourself and adults, as well as kids, need constant reminding to be careful.

“Oversharing” can create other issues as well. There has been research about how teens and adults view other people’s Facebook pages – often people they don’t know well – and become depressed because everyone seems to have “better” lives than they do.  And why not?  Most people don’t put out the bad things in their lives on their Facebook pages. Most Facebook pages are littered with positive and good things.

“All of this leads to how I think parents can keep their kids safe. KEEP TALKING  TO THEM, but most of all model good digital manners, safety and restraint. Talk to them about what people put on their Facebook pages and how it only reflects the things they want other people to know about them. Remind them if they start talking to someone online, or on a game, that seems incredibly sympathetic, perhaps that person may be too good to be true. Practice digital restraint – in other words, don’t always pull out your smart phone whenever you have a free moment.  The truth is that if you are seduced by the technology, your kids will be too. Just like everything in life, it’s all about balance and restraint.”

TNP:  Any other advice you’d like to share?

DK: I want to offer some hope. When it comes to technology, all I can tell you is that it’s about balance. I’ve been reviewing technology for children since 1979 and my two kids were exposed to it constantly growing up in the late 1990s through now. We had every new game, gadget and piece of software available at our house because I was a reviewer. Yet I still read to them every night, we did lots of art projects, they both played sports and musical instruments, my daughter was a volunteer at the local zoo in high school, and we managed to have a few serious conversations every once in a while.

Today my oldest is in a PhD program at an Ivy League university and my son is away at a respected college, playing soccer, and doing quite well despite being severely dyslexic.

“Trust your instincts, remember to model good technology habits and don’t forget to keep everything in moderation.”

Believe me – you can let technology be part of your children’s lives without being overwhelmed by it.

Email Thank Yous…Yes or No?

10 Mar

This blog post is dedicated to one of my favorite tech-savvy moms.  (She lives in Omaha and her initials are DP if she’s reading…)

Anyhoo, I cleaned out my kitchen desk this weekend and came across a half-addressed thank you note, complete with “forever” stamp firmly affixed.  I immediately cringed, realizing the baby gift thank you note I had intended to send six months ago had gotten lost among my post-baby paper clutter and never made it to the mailbox.  My face warmed, recalling the sweet handwritten note the gifter sent me in response to the gift I sent her for her little girl, who was born a month prior to my munchkin’s arrival.

So here’s my question:  In this day and age, is it okay to send email, text or Facebook thank you notes, or do you need to mail the real deal?  And will you require your kids to handwrite thank you notes as they grow up?

Prior to my “sleepless-new-mom” frame of reference, I would staunchly vote for the hand-written thank you.  My positioning was grounded in the manners my mom taught me.  A handwritten note shows thoughtfulness – by taking the time to  handwrite in a typing age, buy stamps, and get the note to the physical mailbox in a timely manner.  Plus, in this digital age, who doesn’t appreciate a non-bill piece of mail?

But  in my working-new-mom world, when I’m operating on two stolen hours of sleep a night and finding clean, matching socks seems like a miracle, thank you notes can fall into a drawer, only to be discovered on my child’s first birthday.  And where are the manners then?  Good intentions are great, but if they don’t get the job done, they’re not that good, right?

So while I’m a *huge* fan of the handwritten thank you, both for the manners and the skills it teaches, (and I will teach my munchkin this graceful way to say thank you for sure) today, I fall in the “email works” category.  It shows you acknowledge the gift.  It shows you’re thankful for the time and money the giver spent selecting, purchasing and shipping it.  And most importantly, it guarantees the thanks gets to your destination (spam mailboxes aside.)

So DP, in the spirit of Techno(t)parent, this is my formal, digital thank you.  I appreciated the gift *so* much, and the munchkin  practically wore the outfit out.  (And she’s still wearing the accessories!)  I hope you know –  since you’re a new mom too – it wasn’t a matter of saying thanks in my heart… I’d send you the half-addressed note as proof, but it may take a few additional weeks!

To everyone else, what do you think?  Is email or FB sufficient in the “thank you” department?

Interview with “Parenting With Technology” Author Diane Kendall (Part II)

9 Mar

Here is Part 2 of my  interview with parenting with technology expert Diane Kendall.   She offered heaps of really great, practical advice, so our interview is posted as three separate posts.  (Here’s Part 1).  Part 3 will be posted next week… Stay tuned!

TNP:  What are the biggest benefits of technology for kids? Why should they be exposed?  At what age?

DK:  To me, the two biggest benefits of technology for kids are becoming independent learners and no restraints on knowledge and creativity. The programs/apps/online experiences that are now available now, even for little ones, means that kids can teach themselves lots of things, at their own pace. I always laugh when I hear people say what will happen later when learning isn’t all bells and whistles and interactive characters. My question is:   “Who says there are no challenges in learning using these applications?”

Kids don’t always get the right answer, nor when playing a game, do they become good at it right away. If a game or a learning program is any good, and kids go back to it repeatedly, it is because they find some kind of challenge in it. If the technology was all easy and mindless, they wouldn’t go back to it. Obviously some challenges are greater than others, can lead to more real world skills, and can help kids learn things that will help them with the kinds of skills that they will need for standardized schooling.   But the great thing is that kids can go at their own pace using many of these apps and programs.  They are not waiting on others to get to their level. They are learning that it is ok to forge on ahead. There is a lot being said in the press and in education about how kids are going to have to be more responsible for their own education in the future. I think technology is going to be a big part of that.

As for knowledge, I was in a meeting the other day and someone was bemoaning the fact that kids have no geographic sense. “They don’t know where Tunisia is!” she exclaimed.  My answer to that was looking up where Tunisia is is so easy for kids today that the real problem is taking kids to the next level – What is important in the world today about Tunisia? How are they connected to Tunisia (at least in a kind of six degrees of separation sense)? What compelling reasons are there to know about this country or any other? If kids can answer those questions they are much more likely to know where Tunisia is.

“Factual knowledge is no longer an issue. Kids can look up what they want, when they want. That is very cool. But it makes our job as adults and teachers a bit harder because asking and getting at the answers to those other higher level questions can be a bit tougher, but definitely more necessary.”

As far as creativity goes, I love that many of the tools to create art, music, video, and other media are becoming simplified so that kids can use them to create as sophisticated products as adults can. I think that is very empowering to kids.  Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important for kids to create off the computer as well. Get messy with paint and clay and dirt out in the garden and build with blocks and all the rest. But there is something very satisfying about creating something fairly sophisticated, even at a young age, and I think that is a great benefit of technology for kids.

So when should they start at all of this? My answer is that parents know best about much of this. It is important to keep technology appropriate, set some time limits, make sure there is a mixture of activities and more. Because I was a reviewer, my two kids, started young at around 18 months or so because there was always lots of technology at our house. If exposure to technology is done as a “laptime” activity I personally think that there is some merit to doing it with preschoolers. It is a great way to supplement the learning of shapes, colors, letters, simple math concepts, reading and more.

Sugarlips and Media Monitoring

8 Mar

A friend of mine recently shared that he and his wife regularly monitor their 11-year-old’s technology use.  Under the guise of “charging” her cell phone, they review her text messages daily and they also comb her computer’s browsing history to see where she’s been on the Web.  While Mom and Dad have an agreement with Daughter that they *can* do this, they’re unsure if she’s actually aware they *are* doing it.  Regularly.

On one of these “digital recon” missions, Dad learned his daughter was planning her first kiss with her pint-sized beau, (aptly nicknamed “Sugarlips” by Dad.)  So, as a result of “digital snooping,” Dad was able to stay on top of his daughter’s social life.  He didn’t tell her he snooped, but the info he found prompted him to initiate a meaningful conversation with his daughter about her impending smooch.

Another friend has an agreement with her 12-year-old to do “spot checks” on her cell.  During one of these surprise checks, Mom found an “I hate u!” outgoing text on her daughter’s phone.  “Mom, it was an inside joke,” the daughter insisted when confronted.  “We all do it to each other.”  But this discovery launched a discussion on “tone check” and cyber bullying that Mom might not have had with her daughter otherwise.

Do you spot-check your child’s media use?  Have you ever found something surprising?  If your kids don’t know you’re monitoring them, is it an “invasion of privacy” akin to reading a diary?  Or is “digital eavesdropping” good parenting sense?

Parents eavesdropping on kids is nothing new.  Remember Mrs. Hatch in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?  But “digital eavesdropping” takes things to a whole new level, and it raises issues of privacy, questions regarding what age should you start, what age should you stop, and how frequently should you be monitoring.  It also raises questions about digitally savvy kids who are able to clear browsing histories, delete texts and otherwise superficially “cover-their-tech-tracks”.

Personally, I’m of the school that “spot checks” should be understood and expected, because it instills in kids the idea that they should think before they write, post, or send.  It reinforces the fact that they are – in fact – writing for (and likely broadcasting to) a broader audience than just the intended recipient, and that audience could include Mom.

My own mom always gave me the advice, “If you wouldn’t want your mom to read it on the front page of the newspaper, don’t write it.”  And I confess,  many times I didn’t heed that sage advice.  But that’s the type of caution “spot checks” enforce.  Had I known my mom had access to every note I ever sent, I might have been more judicious about what I wrote.

Kudos to my parent friends who are monitoring their kids’ media use and using these opportunities to have meaningful conversations with their kids.  While it might be viewed as an invasion of privacy in the short-term, the discussions will stay with their kids as they grow.

True, kids should be allowed to have the freedom to write and say what they want, but they need to understand and be aware of the consequences of doing so on a digital, permanent platform… And reminded of it regularly.

I can only hope Sugarlips’ parents are having the same conversations 🙂