A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less

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If you’re a parent, you’ve probably despaired more than once at the sight of your kid indelibly glued to their smartphone. Philosophy professor Jordan Shapiro has a radical proposal: Don’t despair, rejoice. Better yet, join in.

Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices, but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future.

Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and a respected thinker on education, childhood and technology, presents his case in the new book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He encourages parents to dive into technology headlong with their kids, be it video games or social media. On one level, parent participation is just common sense: Technology is a major part of their lives, and if you aren’t there to mentor and contextualize it for them, they will find guidance elsewhere. But Shapiro also folds in developmental psychology, philosophy, and history, unpacking why people have defaulted to thinking every major technological innovation—from the printing press to television—would isolate people, compromise their ability to communicate, and destroy society.

“Your job as a parent is not to stop unfamiliar tools from disrupting your nostalgic image of the ideal childhood, nor to preserve the impeccable tidiness of the Victorian era’s home/work split. Instead, it’s to prepare your kids to live in an ethical, meaningful and fulfilled life in an ever-changing world,” he writes. To do this, he argues, families and schools must embrace technology, including gaming, to prepare kids for an uncertain but determinedly digital future.

The New Childhood arrives at the perfect moment, when the pendulum has swung so far against tech that it almost feels dangerous to put technology and kids in the same sentence. Shapiro’s fresh approach—he believes Plato would have been a gamer —is a welcome respite from those who point to technology as the source of all of societies ills. (Full disclosure: Shapiro and I have met at various conferences and had friendly chats.) I would recommend this book to anyone who is grappling with the question of how to manage the relationship between children and technology.

“We are attached to our digital devices,” Shapiro acknowledges. “But that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, life is always lived through the tools of the times. Digital tools act like a bridge between individual and common experiences. They help us to mediate our relationship with the world around us. They ease the strain between inner and outer realities. They do this exceptionally well.”

The pitfalls of screen time

Digital tools may help us mediate our experiences of the world, but there’s good reason for parents to be concerned about their effects. Apps, video games, and social media platforms are all designed by adults who work for commercial entities that exist to profit from maximizing every customer’s attention, kids included. Children do not have the self-regulation or executive function to resist the lure of such powerful persuasive design. Adults don’t either—what does that tell you?

A generation of children who grew up on tech are showing us the results of their experience. They are more anxious and more medicated. Work is 24/7, in part because of the nature of jobs, and in part because they find it increasingly hard to divorce themselves from their devices. As Anne Helen Petersen explains in a recent article on burnout for BuzzFeed:

“There is no “off the clock” when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations. The rise of smartphones makes these behaviors frictionless and thus more pervasive, more standardized.”

This, she explains, has led to epic burnout about millennials. The financial crash or the rise of the gig economy have played a part too. But there’s no way that the pressure to have a constant, on-demand, curated internet presence does not contribute.

Part of my job involves speaking to parents, teachers, psychologists and pediatricians. Nearly all are alarmed at rising levels of anxiety among all children, and they see social media as part of the problem. The research linking smartphone use and mental health problems is tenuous; one 2017 report from the UK’s Education Policy Institute concluded that there is ”evidence of a beneficial impact of social media on young people’s emotional well being,” while simultaneously noting that 37% of kids are extreme internet users and extreme internet use may have harmful effects.

One thing we do seem to know is that kids need sleep—and devices mess with it. “If we wanted to invent something to undermine thriving, we would invent something to undermine sleep,” said Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. Phones may qualify, she says, pointing to a  longitudinal study that showed that kids whose phones disturbed their sleep went onto have greater mental health issues.

Shapiro refers to some of these issues, but never fully addresses them. He also fails to address the gendered aspects of digital engagement. According to Pew, girls spend more time on social media, and boys spend more time on video games. The book discusses gaming way more than social media (Shapiro has sons). If parents are going to follow his advice, with a headlong embrace of tech, the onus is on him to address the ample, if conflicting, evidence.

The beauty of boundaries

I don’t think most kids are addicted to technology, going by the definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. But they are certainly distracted by it, just as we grown-ups are. I have to put limits on myself, and on my 46-year-old self-regulation system. I leave my phone upstairs when I get home from work because the pull of reading one more thread on Slack, editing that last story, or reading one more study is too great. My kids need my attention, and I can only fully give it to them when I am not distracted. In this, I am modeling exactly what I want them to learn: Technology is amazing, and we should embrace all it has to offer. But we should also know its perils, and recognize its power.

I am not longing for the nostalgic days of yore. My kids engage plenty with technology. But as with education, I try to scaffold it; Everything builds on what comes first. They practice using Instagram and YouTube with me, using them in short stints. Soon enough, they will be on their own with their own devices. They will have a model of time management to draw from; they will likely ignore it. But it’s there as a tool.

Shapiro and I agree on many things, including on the need for schools to better use technology in the classroom. And his context is different than mine in many ways: I am raising my kids in Britain, where I am constantly struck how much younger kids seem compared to their US peers. Culture and context matter: Our kids are the same age, but none of their friends have phones, which makes it easier to be resolute that mine won’t either. Shapiro grew up loving gaming; I grew up loving sports. Not surprisingly, my kids love sports; his, gaming. We are creating contexts for our kids that makes sense to us. We’d both probably argue that the tools we are giving them will prepare them for the future (though his may be more employable).

But we diverge on plenty of points. Part of his logic in supporting video games is that children learn through play, a premise I have written extensively about. Play helps kids develop the muscles of life: how to negotiate, how to push limits, how to self-regulate. I am not convinced that video games do the same. Shapiro argues that video games can encourage cooperation and expose kids to other cultures and time zones. But as Björn Jeffery, the former co-founder of Toca Boca children’s apps, explains, unstructured play is what kids are lacking: “You can’t win, you can’t lose, there’s no explicit purpose to any of it.”  Video games expose kids to a set of rules and a game design that everyone plays by. And if you play with a Greek kid, I doubt that counts as exposure to Greek culture.

Shapiro also says he doesn’t impose limits on his kids’ screen time, pointing out that children are often using their digital devices for educational or creative purposes. ”Balance and boundaries no longer makes sense as the organizing principle of child-rearing,” Shapiro writes in reference to a conversation he had with friend and NPR education correspondent Anya Kamentez, who suggests a sort of Goldilocks approach to screens: not too little, not too much, mostly with others.

I enthusiastically set limits on my kids’ tech use. Everything I have learned about parenting suggests that kids thrive with boundaries. We remove these boundaries as they get older because our goal is not to make clones but to let them develop into fully actualized and independent humans. But for a brief time, we have a big role in showing what we value and what constitutes fun. I recently watched a child telemark up a mountain. My kids noted, from a chairlift, that it looked like hell. The kid clearly loved it: it’s what he did with his dad, his family’s version of normal. What we expose them to matters.

That said, Shapiro has set plenty of rules around what his kids do need to do: Read books before bed, allow themselves to feel bored on short car rides, get exercise, and, like many families, no devices at his dinner table.

Some evidence on the benefits of tech may be well on his side. Compared to even one year ago, kids are reporting a healthier relationship with technology. They say the impact of tech on their lives is more positive than negative. They are also super annoyed with friends who can’t get off social media and parents who cannot look up from their phones. The pendulum seems to be swinging toward self-correction. “Children are not addicted to their devices,” Shapiro writes; “they are using them whenever they can because they feel embraced by them.” Or, as author danah boyd says, teens are not addicted to technology, they are addicted to each other. Tech is simply their medium.

The New Childhood opened my mind to the context in which technology exists. Historical perspective is useful when confronting raising kids with devices we did not have. Adulthood, he writes, “is about one’s capacity to creatively adapt the pillars of human wisdom so that our collective values remain meaningful even when situated in new contexts.” After reading his book, I am not convinced that our collective values are best reflected in video games, but I understand my own fears a bit better and am more convinced of some of the benefits technology can offer.

But if humans have forever been resistant to change, we have also managed to change anyway. Maybe my parents worried TV would fry my brain; now I spend 10 hours a day on a screen. Were they right or wrong? The change came, resistance be damned. Most parents make decisions based on our intuition and what we think feels right. Shapiro dissects why we hold some beliefs so sacred with both intellectual rigor and empathy.

Childhood is shockingly short, and parents are stars in it for a fleeting moment. What makes parenting hard is that we design that role with a million different decisions every day, from what values we model to what snacks we pick. Also, how we approach tech. I’m still sticking with the digital-light path, knowing that digital-heavy days are right around the corner; with an approach that’s more board games and bike rides than Minecraft. Maybe that means my kids will be ill-prepared for an uncertain future. Or maybe they’ll have just the tools they need to work it out.