I once thought we were protecting children from screen-based media, until I realised the child is actually being given an uncommon opportunity to retain his freedom. It’s the screens that, like overpowering, over-protective guardians, hold children back from the adventures they would naturally embark on, make them a little less confident, a little more needy, a little less happy.
Some may think it’s silly to not let a child interact with screens in this day and age, given that they’re everywhere, inside and outside of the home but that really is the point.
Let’s pretend for a moment that using screen-based devices might do a child some harm, like unhealthy eating for example. I might strive to reduce that harm by limiting their use. Now if I decide to stop feeding sweets and junk food to my child, friends will offer advice. I’ll find tips and recipes in magazines or online and even politicians and school authorities try to help. Shops may sell the bad stuff, but they’ll also provide organic, low-sugar, low-carb options and there’s generally a healthy alternative to McDonalds nearby. In a word, I feel supported.
If I want to limit screens for my child on the other hand, it seems the world is conspiring against me. Nurseries extoll the benefits of toddlers interacting with iPads, but like with sweets, just a taste can make a child want more. Asking another parent to not offer him sweets is fine, but it’s harder to ask her to keep TVs, game consoles and tablets turned off. In fact I’ve made her feel she’s being judged for the times she left her baby in the pram with her iPhone while she had a coffee. I keep getting a hint of “Why would anyone deprive their offspring of something that will educate them and that they’ll enjoy?”
In a nutshell, we’re free to be vegans, alcoholics, hippies, free to preach a religion, free to be politically outspoken, but we’re not free to raise children away from technology. It’s not OK.
We tech-free parents notice the little differences. It’s not just that our children are not obsessed with Disney princesses and cartoon pigs, they are eager to learn – everything! They play well and are tolerant, they’re very aware of little details around them, they’re helpful and good communicators. They’re being raised entirely by people, not machines.
We don’t believe these kids are freaky gifted geniuses. They’re just children developing the way children did a hundred years ago, who are not being tempted away from achievement, like their peers are, by brain candy, and are never compelled to sit down on the couch, shut up, stare, and stop thinking. They are what would be normal children, if the year was anything other than 2019. Growing up well is a child’s most important task. They only get one chance at it, and we’re trying not to blow it for them.
Tech-free parents are ironically often very technical people, or they may be professionals with experience of people and technology and who think a lot about what they see. They’re sprouting up everywhere, but until now the more vocal communities have been in Silicon Valley.
Often people expect the children of tech-free parents will be over-protected, socially-awkward children who don’t quite fit in, as if part of a prohibitive religious community. They then end up surprised to see the opposite – confident, articulate kids who are outgoing, open-minded and afraid of nothing. They would in fact be just normal kids if modern media hadn’t lowered the bar, as we accept iPad and TV pacifiers as the norm.
How do you go Tech-Free?
Being a tech-free parent obviously means limiting the use of screens (TVs, mobiles, iPads, computers, toys with screens), ideally to none at all. The thinking is that the young brain doesn’t need major distractions while it’s making the most essential connections.
At around one year of age, an infant starts properly interacting with the world around him, and taking an interest in what is going on. If a TV is on, they’ll be unable to not focus on that, so from that age, it’s better to keep any screen turned off around them.
As they grow a little older, make their first steps, learn their first words, they’ll want to use what you use, and do what you do, so many parents will stop using computers or mobile phones in front of the children, to avoid making them want to do the same. It’s leading by example, and has the advantage of bringing a level of mindfulness to the parents, who start to lose their own Fear Of Missing Out, and become more focused on the child and the real world close by, even reducing compulsive phone use away from the family. Not heading straight to a mobile device to answer a child’s question encourages creativity and imagination in the family, as you find yourself trying to get them to suggest answers, or coming up with your own theories.
The fun really starts when you have a three or four-year-old, who’s smart, mobile and very able, all qualities that make it harder to keep them away from screens. At that age, it seems like people queue up to hurt those children’s growth and lock them in the child-screen/desire prison. Councils decide that installing touch-screens and man-size flat panels in the street is the way forward. Other children or grandparents want to show off something on a mobile phone. Smartphones and social networks have made it the norm to photograph and selfie every moment of our lives. Small businesses want to boost their business with video displays in their shop windows and it’s hard to blame them as advertising means money and business, and everyone knows screens work for that.
Needless to say, tech-free parents become very creative in the face of these difficulties. As the child grows you have to constantly review your position, make trade-offs between achieving the tech-free goal, and ensuring the child never ends up in an awkward situation, feeling embarrassed that they don’t know about something. Screen-free brings obvious cognitive benefits, but it takes strong, consistent parents to make a happy child, and it takes a happy child to make a future healthy well-adjusted adult.
Understanding the problem
We’ve all met a youngster addicted to gaming who struggles with their everyday life; we know people who have been hurt by social media or others going through depression triggered by messages from TV, the Internet and their role models. No parent wants that to happen their child, yet many are resigned to it, helpless, as if it’s inevitable: the new normal.
It’s no secret that screen-based media are addictive. It’s because the devices are so well made, so interactive and so full of promises, that the child will feel empowered and want to use them at any opportunity, and in today’s world that means literally all the time. Those ubiquitous “opportunities” were simply not there a generation ago. Parents didn’t have to worry about a child getting hooked, unless maybe they supplied the equipment themselves. Today however, with Internet and smart devices throughout the home, with the strength of advertising promoting them, and with the way we behave towards them, addiction is a real risk.
To prove the point, look at us, “grown-ups”. There’s never been a whole generation so compelled to check a device for notifications, so likely to prioritise digital trivia over family. A smoker may avoid giving into the habit around their children to set a good example, but how many of us reduce our obsessive phone usage?
And so we have the Pleasure Island effect, where Pinocchio is presented with a place that’s impossible for him to resist, a land of fun and games that seems too good to be true, and you can’t blame him for getting on board with the Coachman. But all good things have a price and in the story the Island turns the boys into donkeys that will be sold for profit. Today’s reality is different because even good children can’t avoid the digital temptation. However they will be transformed by the experience. The Internet is making us Like, Be, Think, Feel, in a specific way.
This isn’t about sharing culture with our peers. We’re not even being moulded by our social media friends. YouTube, Facebook and other Clickbait generators connect us to “recommended” content, but the artificial intelligence behind that recommendation is not trying to give us a solution we can walk away with, it is scheming to make us stay online. The sickening part is where A.I. has worked out (without the help of its human creators) that the best way to do this, is to recommend increasingly extreme content. This is not a Schwarzenegger movie. This ability machine learning has to create a rabbit hole for us to run through has literally turned people into abusers, driven children to join murderous Jihadi groups, and to self-harm or commit suicide.
Whether we end up part of such statistics or not, machines are affecting how we think. Once sucked in to digital devices, children are forced to conform to stereotypes and to give up proper individual thinking. With everything so satisfyingly served up to them, they’re encouraged to think less, to stagnate.
What parent or teacher would allow this to happen to a child? Every one it seems. Many take real pride in the fun, innovative hardware and software they’ve provided to children, even though what they’ve really done is saved themselves a load of work in engaging with the child.
As parents, we naturally want to give and help. Often, we forget our children need space to think and be creative. Once, I was about to say “Wow, this toy does something awesome – let me show you!” before realising the kid was happily focused on organising the toys in a toy box. I almost ended a task he’d figured out on his own, and the thinking that goes with it, just so he could have a quick laugh at something silly for my own satisfaction. I waited and we had our fun later on.
Outbursts like “You think plants eat soil with their roots? I’ll tell you what really happens” only serve to make the parent feel cleverer than their toddler. The more enlightened response is in fact “Did you work that out on your own? That’s a really good thought!” – to encourage them to continue wanting to work things out on their own.
Bad parenting like this is positively encouraged by the media and our peers. You’ll be pushed from all sides to do “something exciting” with your child, to the point where even the child starts asking for excitement. Parents feel it’s wrong to let a child play with non-interactive toys, there’s not enough stimulation, so they turn on the TV or the tablet. Teachers feel the same. The media providers themselves know that under-stimulation is the enemy of profit, so the children are bombarded with action, rewards and excitement until somebody drags them away.
Even so-called educational content is too one-sided in thinking the child must be educated. Often, the child needs the time and space to digest what they’ve seen, and process it fully. The media are not designed to give a mind space. They are designed to keep the mind occupied so it won’t take the profit it generates elsewhere.
So this is where we are: so many chances for children to get trapped in a world where they can no longer manage without the digital. The world won’t change overnight, so parents take little steps to mitigate the damage on their own families. Often they don’t know many others who take the same approach. Some parents don’t even have support from a partner. Some work hard at this and suffer in silence.
One thing is for sure, we all benefit when we speak up. Speak about it to schools and to nurseries, speak to other parents and childminders, to decision-makers, even to strangers! You’ll often find somebody else has been spreading the same message, and as we all start speaking up, our presence will become impossible to ignore. You might think things won’t get any easier for you overnight, but as more voices are being heard, we’ll start to see attitudes improving and policies changing.
We are Tech-Free Parents. We’re part of a growing trend, and we are just starting to get vocal, in order to reclaim our freedom to let our children grow up the more natural way.
To read more on why parents are wary of the impact mobile devices and the internet have on young minds, see Five Threats to Children from Technology