Techno Family

Kids Should Visit, Not Live at ‘Camp Interactive’

by Carolyn Jabs

This summer, millions of kids will attend Camp Interactive. You know this camp. It’s where millions of kids will go to spend hour after hour with electronic devices — computers, video games, MP3 players, cell phones and television.

To some parents, it seems there’s hardly a moment when kids aren’t plugged in. Last year the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the typical American kid was consuming a staggering eight hours of media a day, and not just in the summer.

The researchers pointed out that those eight hours of media use were stuffed into only 6.5 hours of the day because kids were often multitasking — using two or more electronic devices at once. Today, the figures are probably even higher because the Kaiser data was collected in 2004 and didn’t include cell phones!

Gray Areas
Researchers’ conclusions about this digital multitasking are anything but conclusive.

Some think kids are fooling themselves about being able to do more than one thing at a time, and the quality of everything from friendship to homework is suffering as a result. Others admire the juggling capabilities of young people and believe they are learning skills they will need to manage an ever more complex and wired world.

For parents, this uncertainty and the prevalent heavy use of electronics makes it difficult to know how to guide kids. Setting strict limits on interactive time is one approach.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under two shouldn’t have any exposure to screen media, and older kids should be restricted to 1 or 2 hours of screen time per day.
Timers are especially helpful for kids under ten. Although you can buy devices that will shut off the computer, TV or video game, most kids do fine with a kitchen timer. When it goes “ding,” headphones come out and the screen goes dark.

As kids get older, arbitrary rules about time often become counter-productive. For one thing, kids are different today. The chitchat of instant messaging (IM) actually contributes to their social development.

Also, different kids have different thresholds for interactive involvement. Some seem to thrive on multitasking; for others, too much media makes them stressed, cranky or even depressed.

In adolescence, when kids experiment to figure out how digital devices fit into their lives, they need a little latitude from parents. On the other hand, adults can help kids see the big picture so they don’t allow interactive pursuits to displace other valuable activities.

Ingredients for Balance
At every age, the role of parents is to point out, lobby for and, in some instances, insist upon these other ingredients that are essential for a balanced, healthy life.

Sleep. Kids who get enough sleep are more cheerful and do almost everything better. The National Sleep Foundation calls interactive devices “sleep stealers,” both because they keep kids up too late and because their use creates a state of alertness that makes it harder for kids to fall asleep. To make going to sleep at a regular time easier, even in the summer, keep cell phones, video games and computers out of the bedroom

Exercise. With a few exceptions like Dance Revolution, using interactive devices means sitting still and using your head instead of your body. Kids need to understand that a healthy, balanced life includes exercise. Look for shared activities that are playful, exuberant, even joyful.

F2F time. Make face-to-face time a priority in your home. Research suggests that many kids crave more “fun time” with parents. Establish media-free periods when you can do things together without inter-ruption. Unplugged per-i-ods can include dinner time (turn off the TV); game night (post a cute away message on the IM screen); and shopping (let the phones take messages).

Look for other opportunities to unplug so you can share each other’s company, for example while cooking a favorite meal, washing the car or playing with the family pet. In the car, don’t let headphones deprive you of conversation. One compromise is to hook MP3 players to speakers so you can enjoy music together.

Concentration. Multitasking can be a rush, but there’s also value in “flow,” the experience people have when they are so focused on what they are doing that they lose track of the outside world.

Artists, athletes, surgeons and even video gamers describe flow as a peak experience that’s possible only when distractions are minimized.

You can’t create this experience for your child, but you can point out its value. Also, encourage your kids to reserve some time for doing just one thing. Summertime is perfect for getting lost in books, art projects and other activities.

Goals. Interactive devices can soak up time so there’s nothing left for things that really matter. From an early age, talk to kids about offline activities that make them especially happy or that they do unusually well. Help them keep track of responsibilities such as lessons, pets, chores and other projects.

Discuss what they want and need to accomplish during the day, during the week, during summer break or the school semester. When kids hold larger goals in mind, interactive devices are less likely to become black holes for their time.

As parents, we may know the ingredients of a good life but we don’t necessarily know what proportions will work for our kids. You probably don’t set hard and fast rules for yourself about how much interactive time you’ll have each day.

Instead, you let your interactive time ebb and flow, knowing you’ll be happiest when you can balance the responsibilities and interests in your life without letting one overwhelm the others.
That happy sense of balance should also be your goal for your child. Camp Interactive can be a very cool place to visit but nobody should live there!

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in children’s interactive media.