Technology and Kids’ Friendships

Image by Adam UXB Smith via Flickr

The New York Times reports on the latest Pew findings about how much time kids spend texting each other.  A side note: why do they always put these articles in fashion? Seriously?  Why not technology?  It seems to me that putting in the tech section would accomplish two things.  One, it might get the tech audience to think about some of the implications of the gadgets and software they’re so interested in reading about.  And two, it might get some parents and teachers who are otherwise clueless about what’s out there to find out more about trends in technology.  Just a thought.

So anyway, the article begins with the usual scare mongering about how all this technology is changing the nature of friendships and for the worse.  I think it’s important to consider the downside to anything, but it’s also important to consider the upside, the possibility that a change might actually be a good thing.  Which, thankfully, the second half of the article does.  Parents say that they believe texting has brought their kids closer to their friends.  Some parents even suggested their shy and withdrawn kids sign up for Facebook.

One thing the article doesn’t mention is the possible connection between parents’ fears about child abduction, etc. and the use of technology.  What I mean by that is that we are less likely, have been less likely, to let our kids wander over to a friend’s house or to the park to meet up with friends.  So texting and Facebook and MySpace and online games are a substitute for those face-to-face interactions.  It’s possible that the turn to online interactions would have happened anyway, without the parenting changes, because of the novelty of those interactions.  But we should always consider that there are larger society shifts at play and that the introduction of technology might not be the only thing causing the shift.

Also, there’s barely a mention of balance.  One mother notices her son is becoming more withdrawn as he turns to the computer for most of his personal communication, and so she signs him up for some activities that are face-to-face.  And I think that’s key.  I’m less concerned about my kids hanging out online when they are also playing sports or participating in other face-to-face activities.  And I think that’s important.  In the summer, I limit the amount of time the kids spend online even more because they don’t have the natural interactions of school to turn to.  And the weather is nice enough that I can kick them outside for a few hours.  If we get a really nasty rainy day, I’ll extend time online as a treat, but even then, I also make them go read or play a board game.  It’s all about the variety of activities, and I’m always trying to encourage that variety.

Geeky Boy communicates with most of his friends (and his girlfriend–yikes!) through texting, Facebook, or Runescape.  But much of that communication is about arranging occasions to meet.  And he spends a fair amount of time actually talking on the phone as well.  The one thing I will say that’s disappointing about all this online communication is that I know less about his friends than my parents knew about mine.  My friends often had to talk to my mom or dad first before they’d hand over the phone to me and they’d come by the house or one parent or another would drive us all to the mall or the movies or the pool.  Now, they’re not allowed to be dropped off anywhere, mostly and no one has cars, so I’ve met very few of Geeky Boy’s friends.  Maybe that will change when they start to drive, or maybe it will all remain a mystery.

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Too much of a good thing

The world of social networking is an interesting thing indeed. It’s created dilemmas for us that we never thought we’d have to face. Like whether or not to friend your mom in Facebook. (I have–hi Mom!) My son found Facebook the other day–at my suggestion. He had been using Runescape as his primary means of communicating with friends–really. Because it’s a game, he had a tendency to get sucked in for hours, so I suggested he use Facebook instead. And yes, he friended me. I guess my parents worried about our spending too much time in front of the tv. I worry about other screens. As the summer approaches, I haven’t figured out exactly how to parcel out time appropriately. After all, I spend probably 8-10 hours online myself and only about half of that is “work”.

This week, the NY Times had an article about the effect of too much texting on teens. I actually think the article makes some good points as we’ve seen similar effects from too much computer use in general–sleep problems, grades falling, anxiety (usually caused by the first two). And, as the article points out, sometimes see restrictions on texting as hypocritical as their parents are attached to their Blackberries. There are simple measures, some of which the article mentions, that parents can take. We discovered, for example, that Geeky Boy was keeping a laptop in his room and playing into the wee hours of the night. Needless to say, we now have him check all electronic devices at the door before going to bed. We haven’t done this with the cell phone since a) he doesn’t have a text plan and b) he isn’t that attached to it yet. But it would be easy to have your kids hand over the phone before bed–and in fact, this could be the rule for the whole family. We’ve also put limits on computer time or had prerequisites for using the computer. For example, homework and certain chores must be done before logging in. That usually means that there’s only an hour left as it is.

I’ve tried to be very careful about my own use of various social networking tools and try to watch my own time online. Several years ago, I had gotten so involved in blogging that I became disconnected from my family. That is not a good thing and I don’t want that to happen to me agian or to my kids. I’m regularly thinking about balance in my own and my family’s lives. I find I start to feel sort of antsy anyway if I’ve spent too much time online.

In an online discussion about Tweeting too Much, meaning, both excessively and tweeting too much personal info, several experts weigh in. Most agree that social norms in regards to what’s “too personal” and how public information is in social networking sites are still being worked out. They all seem to agree that people need to achieve some kind of balance, both about what they’re willing to put out there and how much time (and when it’s appropriate to text, etc.) they spend posting to Twitter or Facebook. Not during birth, please. And maybe not during your kid’s soccer game either. Maybe we don’t need to hear about your relationship issues either. On the other hand, if you think your sharing that information with other people going through similar issues, okay. These things used to get worked out via email lists and discussion forums (and before that, in living rooms, coffee houses/bars or over the phone). So these are new platforms for communicating, not just what we know should be public, but everything.

To some extent, this whole blurring of the public/private line fuels some of our kids’ anxiety about texting and using Facebook. They know it’s public–even if they believe it’s just a small contingent of their friends. They still need to appear cool via these venues. And come on, isn’t that part of what all our blogging, twittering, and Facebooking is about? The web gurus out there need to look like they’re on top of every story, working on cool things, talking to cool people. If you feel like you’re not, anxiety central. I used to sort of buy into that, but not anymore. I think what our kids and all of us need to figure out is how these tools benefit us and how to walk away when they’re not. I leave twitter alone when I have work to do. I only read blogs first thing in the morning and over lunch. And I consider 95% of the blog reading and writing I do to be related to my work. I do sometimes play WoW in the middle of the day when I need a break and only then for an hour (at least I try to limit that). And I don’t have a job. I could spend all day doing stuff online. It’s true, at least for me, that the use of these tools and being online in general comes in waves. There are some times when I seem to be online 24/7 and then there may be days in a row where I am not online for more than an hour a day. Finding a balance will be difficult for most people, I think, as the lines between our professional and personal lives blur and as much of our work and social lives start to take place online.