Digital Soup

One day, I sat up in bed to be hit full in the face with a big, fluffy, stuffed Angry Bird. My son Jay laughed then launched another. This next one was rubber and actually hurt. He thought this was hilarious, while his sister Holly jumped up and down on the bed in glee. I frowned. I swung my feet out of bed only to plant one in an empty soup bowl. As an unschooling father, was I getting sloppy? I didn’t even make that soup, it was store bought. I took the bowl into to the kitchen as another Angry Bird hits me in the back of the head. Jay’s aim has improved incredibly I thought. Skills aside, I started to question these birds.

For a while back then, it seemed that the theme tune to Angry Birds had become the theme tune to my life. I remember once there being a time when the standard way to distract a toddler was to hand them the car keys. Now in waiting rooms, on trains, and everywhere a restless and fidgeting child can be found, so too is that theme tune. We hand them a smartphone in the same way we would have allowed them the coveted car keys. Next thing I knew, I had a one-year-old Holly able to turn the phone on, swipe and locate Angry Birds, then happily launch them in the wrong direction with a gleeful cry of, “Did it!”

It all began when I was given a car ride by a principal of a local alternative school, to my surprise, she handed her four-year-old son behind her an iPad for the journey. My own son Jay sat next to him enthralled. Soon I felt like I was in a car with Black Panther’s in the back planning a drive-by shooting. “Kill the pigs, kill the pigs!” they chanted to that incessant tune. As cool as it seemed having a little one using this technology, there was just something not quite right with these birds. Well, first of all these birds are ‘angry’. The gloating pigs have stolen their eggs, occupy tall buildings, have leaders with gold crowns, and even golden eggs. The aim of the game is to launch these birds on suicide attacks (they all die once launched) at the buildings until they destroy them, and all the pigs are dead. Shades of 9/11 in abstract cartoon form I thought. Today, Angry Birds frown at us from lunch boxes, and all kinds of merchandise everywhere. Meanwhile Jay had started throwing things around indoors with a “Yee-ha!”

I placed the bowl in the sink, the empty soup carton stood on the counter staring at me. I hadn’t even checked the ingredients when I bought it – looking at the salt content and the list of unknown additives I would never add to my own vegetable soup – I had an epiphany. I don’t want my children eating processed food all the time, but I am not going to ban them from eating anything store bought because of this. I want them to eat the right amount of nutritious food, just as I want them to have access the right amount of appropriate technology. I needed to think more about quantity, content, and my children’s developmental needs – whether I am feeding their bodies with food, or their minds with new technology.

For many children (more than you may imagine) Angry Birds is basically their first computer game experience. Frowns, anger, gloating, suicide attacks, bombs, death, and destruction. While it seems obvious to question the influence a ‘shoot-them-up’ game using virtual assault rifles may have on an ‘angry’ teenager, these fluffy birds pass under most parent’s radar. I can’t help suspecting that, comparatively, this is just as worrying. As innocent as Teletubbies, or a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy may appear, they contain veiled motifs and agendas. Am I over thinking this? Am I just turning into a ‘helicopter dad’?

Children learn impressive skills on these devices, and this technology is here to stay. But often we as parents fail to think about the content, or consider some and simply reject all. When I first came to America, I heard parents talking about limiting ‘screen time’ – only when I began to write this article, did I look up the phrase and discover it was coined by Lisa Guernsey in her book of the same name. Talking about limiting screen time alone misses her whole point. What Guernsey refers to as, “the three C’s” (Content, Context, and the individual Child) reflected my evolving thoughts as a father on our own children’s use of these interactive technologies, and indeed all forms of digital entertainment. Throwing it all into one big bag to judge is like limiting reading time regardless of subject matter, or how it is being consumed, and the individual child’s needs, and usage.

As I lounge about on a laptop writing this, my wife may sometimes be forgiven for assuming I am just randomly surfing the internet, or wasting time on FaceBook. A teenager sitting indoors on their computer is judged in a completely different way as one sitting indoors reading. We don’t want them surfing the dark under belly of the internet, or playing violent video games, but equally we don’t want them reading, Fifty Shades of Grey, or The Anarchist’s Cook Book. It is not time limits nor access that are as important as being aware as a parent, and proactive and involved in inspiring quality content. I see too many parents limiting ‘screen time’ with good intention only to allow Angry Birds or Sponge Bob Squarepants as that ‘screen time’ content. Like offering fast food as a treat after eating so healthily all week.

As a young Montessori facilitator in the early nineties, I remember the big fanfare over ‘multi-media’ in the news and how this would change education. I scoffed along with my colleagues over the idea that these crude and cartoon-like activities could be anything but an amusing distraction from the hands-on learning we inspired. I still do, but there was something I felt was wrong by completely denying access to computers to young students that didn’t sit well. To this day my elderly father is still of a certain mind that takes pride in declaring, “I don’t know how to use computers, don’t care for them”. Which is a shame as it would be so nice if he could Skype with his grandchildren. I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Wormwood from Roald Dahl’s Matilda as he rejects his daughter’s passion for books. The main reason was that Mr. Wormwood felt threatened, he was illiterate just as the most staunch teachers I met who rejected this new media, tended on the whole to be computer illiterate. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, if today at age fifty I was told that a pair of glasses invented by a search engine would change education – I would equally laugh. Then I see in today’s news that all students in LA are being provided with iPads. I can imagine it now, “Okay class, if you would please take notes from the board”, say’s the teacher as they all lift up their iPads and take a photo.

My first thoughtful inclusion of computers in a prepared learning environment for children of Jay’s age involved the hands-on use of this new technology rather than delivered content. I had a small monochrome screen, simple keyboard, and a mouse. I wrote lowercase letters in the same style as they were learning, and stuck them over the uppercase letters of the keyboard (blacking out all the rest). They would turn the computer on, click on an empty document (set to a large italic font), and type the letters they had just written by hand. That was over twenty-years ago. Now my oldest children are teenagers and adults.

My son Jay has recently turned four, he is now using a laptop and already sees his iPad as passé. When I was his age I hadn’t even used an Etch-A-Sketch, as an emergent teen I was happy playing Pong. As I write this, he is next to me now, we are both relaxed, lying on our fronts, legs twirling in the air behind us, tapping away at our screens. I am sure he sees the laptop as a more mature tool, more complex, with a keyboard, trackpad, and demanding higher dexterity. He basically sees me on one and considers it more grown up. He is learning independently, I just try to ensure he is in a virtual environment that is positive.

Today, I see digital media as a rich, over-cooked soup I once made. A soup with some nasty burned in flavors at the bottom of a pot that will never scrape clean, and some unappealing scum on the surface that at first sight would put you off feeding any to your children altogether. As my children age, I know I will never keep up, but I can initially allow them a structured freedom in which they can find themselves. Digital technology has evolved at such a pace! I find I am still learning as a worrying parent and thoughtful advocate. I do not believe in excluding computers from our children’s lives, but I do believe that as a parent I need to be more involved.

Know now that as our children become full-on teenagers, we are not going to be able to retain full control of their internet use, if any. As long as they live with us, we can restrict their computer access, ban them from using FaceBook, lecture them, or spy on their internet history, but the best we will achieve by this is to push them into becoming secretive. Watching our children grow, it is easy to feel like a tortoise watching the hare in the distance as it runs head first into this primeval digital soup. That scares us as caring parents as much as seeing them leave home will later. Helping them learn to become safe, wise, and selective digital citizens is something we need to inspire early on.

Maybe I was getting above myself, but I couldn’t help reaching out to the very woman who coined the phrase ‘screen time’ to help me consolidate my own ideas and allow me to either critique myself, or feel encouraged. To my delight, Lisa Guernsey responded to my emails asking for her current thoughts on what she sees as both negative and positive about this new media. It is unsurprising that using ‘screen time’ as a babysitter free from adult involvement is something we both were against. Replacing human interaction with digital and screen activity will always be a poor second cousin to real life. However, there is a cross-over that is important, and part of a journey that we can help instill, and inspire, but inevitably take a back seat on as our children grow beyond us. Screen media that utilizes the virtual and digital, as an extension, or promoter of real-life experiences can be hugely rewarding and positive.

Sometimes as an homeschooling father I feel a tinge of guilt as I joined my children in playing computer games. As a progressive unschooler, I don’t. I join my children in the ‘digital soup’ as a mentor and wise companion, and will use our experiences to act as springboards into real-life action. For example, we wanted to make vegetable soup and along with Jay, searched various cooking sites together and watched a few videos. We made a list and visited the local farmer’s market.

Lisa Guernsey went further still in sharing her current attitudes, advocating what she referred to as, “blended online and offline experiences that enable children to see connections and that continue to pique their curiosity.” An example being their taking photographs (or video) of what is around them in their own physical spaces, and then talking about or annotating them. Computers, screens, and all new technology should be an extension of our real-life experiences, not replace them. But ‘blended’.

Jay’s latest fascination is Minecraft. In Sweden this creative and interactive program is now actually part of their national curriculum. He builds and designs islands, houses (sometimes extremely strange houses), and has begun recreating them with Lego. We have recently returned from the farmer’s market with the results of his shopping list (that he created in amusing picture form).

As I finish writing this, I know that however thoughtful I am, I remain far from being the perfect parent or expert on this. I look at Jay and know one sentence that is always guaranteed to have him drop his technology and eagerly engage in the real world. “Jay, can you help me cook?” With some parsley, carrots, leeks, celery, and just a few potatoes to chop, Jay and I head to the kitchen to make vegetable soup. While Jay tackles the vegetables, I put some water on to boil. I eye-up the ingredients on the back of a packet of stock cubes. Oh dear, we really need to start making our own stock again, I thought.  While I question this content, Jay reminds me what we need to do next from his recollections of Jamie Oliver’s recipe. Meanwhile, I hear a familiar tune approach as Holly enters the kitchen with her Angry Birds, I was wondering where my phone went!

© 2013, Lee A. Elliott. First published in Home Education Magazine, 2013.

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