Karen Richardson
Technology and balance in an all-or-nothing world

We seem to be living in an all-or-nothing, black-and-white world without any acknowledgment that there can be a middle ground. Our attitudes toward technology and our children are hardening into these types of fixed mindsets, as shown by writers like Amy Graff who suggest that, since people like Steve Job and other tech execs don't allow their kids to use technology, other parents should follow their lead.

Figuring out how to integrate technology into our lives is not a new conversation. Several years ago, the Good 30-Day Challenge encouraged people to unplug after 8 p.m. The argument I made then about balancing rather than banning is the same argument I make now.

Graff and others who recommend taking technology away form our kids are oversimplifying a complicated issue with sweeping and possibly inaccurate generalizations. She writes:

" "We were the last generation to play outside precisely because we didn't have smartphones and laptops. We learned from movement, hands-on interaction, and we absorbed information through books and socialization with other humans as opposed to a Google search." "

While technology may contribute to children staying inside, I think there are also plenty of other reasons — not the least of which is concern about their safety. As Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times, " "It's easy to say children need to wander unsupervised in the neighborhood inventing their own activities, but we live in the 21st century, not a Beverly Cleary novel." "

I grew up in a Cleary-esque world where my friends and I often played outside unsupervised. I also spent a lot of time with my head in a book. While I would defend reading to my dying day as a wonderful way to learn and engage with an author, it is not a particularly interactive or hands-on way of learning. When I was introduced to a new area of interest via a book, pursuing that topic meant dragging out the encyclopedias or waiting for a trip to the library.

I read so much my mother would have argued that I was addicted to books. To her credit, though, my mother did not ban reading — even the summer I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. Instead she monitored my reading, and when she thought it had gotten out of hand she would shoo me outside to play, help me learn a new craft, make sure I practiced the piano or suggest that my room could use a bit of tidying.

What I am suggesting is a balanced approach to the world: time with technology, time with nature, time with tools. Sometimes those activities may even overlap. I use my iPhone to create videos about my beehives and share them with others who view them using their iPhones to learn more about the life of a beekeeper. I spend a half hour every morning journaling with paper and pen but also keep a more public digital journal on my blog where others can comment and share. I love to crochet, and I use the web to find new patterns and ideas along with experts who can help me improve my skills. My iPhone can be a camera, a cookbook and a collaboration tool.

I am also suggesting, as Graff does, that we take a lesson from my mother and be actively involved in our children's lives. Adults need to model appropriate use. We can't just ban iPads for the kids while we spend every waking hour staring at our phones. Recently I spent a wonderful evening at a local market where families gathered to celebrate the end of the week. The kids rode their bikes and played hide and seek while the adults chatted and listened to music. There was hardly a phone in sight other than for taking a few photos to capture the waning days of summer. If we are going to help our kids lead a balanced life, we must find that balance for ourselves.

How to integrate technology into our own lives and that of our children will continue to be an important conversation. Even as I put the finishing touches on this blog post, an article appeared in the science section of the New York Times questioning whether ebooks counted as reading or screen time with kids. It's worth reading, as it shows the difficulties of determining appropriate technology use. Ultimately, however, the writer makes the same important point: Putting all the conflicting research and mixed messages aside, we cannot abandon our responsibilities when it comes to technology.

" "Perhaps the biggest threat posed by e-books that read themselves to children, or engage them with games, is that they could lull parents into abdicating their educational responsibilities, said Mr. Snow of the National Association for the Education of Young Children." "

It's the level of parent-child interaction that defines the quality of the experience, not the technology you are sharing. 

When we reduce the whole conversation to an all-or-nothing, yes-or-no, black-or-white answer, we miss out on the richness of the opportunities offered by technology in our world. And when we keep our children away from technology, we miss a greater opportunity to guide them in learning how to use that technology safely and effectively. We cannot find balance when all we do is ban.

Karen Richardson is an education technology specialist and owner of Ivy Run LLC. Connect with her on Twitter via @witchyrichy.