I had a conversation with my 8-year old son at lunch today. He talked about really missing a classmate of his who has just moved to Brazil – being in a bilingual school with children from all over the world, he has regularly had to confront this experience of friends suddenly moving far away because of their parents’ jobs.
“I really liked him”, my son said, “because he was cool and he wasn’t a hypno”. I pressed him a little: “what’s a hypno?”. “A hypno is a friend on a playdate who is more interested in his device than he is in you”.
There it was staring me in the face, one of the toughest things that parents and teachers in the digital age face- striking a balanced, healthy relationship to technology. It is tough especially because the relationship is already imbalanced in the adult world, and so the trickle-down to the child’s sphere is a lot more complex than the basic rubrics of discipline or environment.
There is no holier-than-thou position to adopt when it comes to children and technology. We all, teachers and parents, have our beliefs and inner pedagogies on what is ‘good’ for a child. Some parents regulate the use of devices, some don’t. Some judge, some defend and some simply ignore the whole children-devices debate that regularly surface, with various experts weighing in on either side. We have all used the iPad as a convenient babysitter when our children would have been ‘better off’ doing something else, we have all marvelled at how swiftly and efficiently our children master complex technological manoeuvres on a device and we have all enjoyed the simple relief of switching everything off and just hanging out the old-fashioned way now and then.
I’m writing this post, not from any moral position vis-à-vis technology and childhood but in echo of my son’s dilemma. Play dates are swiftly losing their appeal for him, except for a choice few friends who still grab a football, run into the garden and play. The older he gets, the less play dates become about physical play and the more they become about all gathering around a screen. This isn’t to say that what’s happening on and in the screen isn’t exciting, engaging or even educational but the social interaction of going over to a friend’s house is instantaneously stunted by unquestioned necessity for device time. Hence ‘the hypno’; the alter-ego that choses the virtual interaction over the physical one on a play date.
I’m sure, like all children, my son will adapt to his environment and perhaps in a year he’ll have forgotten that he ever made the distinction between friends who had the hypno in them and friends who didn’t. I can feel as nostalgic as I want to about my own rustic childhood but it won’t change the age I’m parenting in or the momentum at which the nature of childhood play is profoundly changing. The experience my childhood has equipped me with, is insufficient to navigate the world I’m raising my children in. But maybe every generation of parents feel like this?
As a teacher, the most efficient tool I’ve found to stop my students from texting under the table is to embrace mobile learning and make the virtual narrative part of our experience of all being in a classroom together. We have a lot of fun with it and normalising it has made it manageable. But my students are in their early twenties and most of them have self-regulating tools that they can draw on. The plight of the 8-year old is a very different one; one where the inner voice of knowing when to stop is perhaps less sharpened and more dependent on adult regulation.
If I had a choice between app-zapping on my iPhone or gossiping with my best friend, she’d win hands down. If I had a choice between staying in checking my Facebook feed or going to a concert with friends, the choice would be pretty obvious as well. The moments when we play with our friends, at whatever age, are always the most precious and most memorable ones in life. Are we giving our children the time and the head space to discover that? Or are we losing our play dates?