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Rachel Dretzin is the producer and director of the FRONTLINE documentary Digital Nation and a mother of three. Read more »
Three years ago, when I first started reporting on the topic of growing up in the digital age, everyone was worried about predators: kids unwittingly putting their personal information online, only to be snatched by stalkers who'd been tracking them for months; kids lured into meeting a stranger who they've been duped into thinking is their age; kids falling in love with a virtual friend who turns out not to be a friend at all.
These days, most people tracking these things agree that predator danger has been vastly exaggerated. Now we worry more about other things: about cyberbullying, about our kids posting something on Facebook that will come back to haunt them, or about their playing so many hours of a video game that the rest of their life begins to fall apart.
But my focus right now is different.
I have three children, ranging in age from almost 7 to almost 12. A few years ago, I saw the Internet largely as their domain, a place they would inhabit and grow up in that I only partly understood. But I no longer see it that way. In what seems like a heartbeat -- Is it since my phone turned into a portal to the Net? -- I've turned into someone who has trouble unplugging, who can't stop checking my e-mail, who struggles with distraction and multitasking and the fact that my social life is increasingly taking place more online than off. And now that I seem to have become a card-carrying member of the constantly wired generation, I have a whole new perspective on parenting in the digital age, one informed by personal experience instead of by abstract worries.
Of course, cyberbullying and privacy and compulsive use of the Internet are real issues. But I'm much more concerned about all of our dwindling capacity to pay attention.
In the course of making my latest FRONTLINE documentary, Digital Nation, I've spoken to college professors who bemoan their students' habit of Facebooking and Googling during lectures. They talk about kids whose papers are constructed as a series of unrelated paragraphs that don't have much to do with each other, because the kids got distracted while writing them. I've visited a research lab out at Stanford whose studies show that those who think they are skilled multi-taskers are actually terrible at it. They lose wads of time switching their attention from one task to another, and even their critical thinking skills are affected.
More importantly, I've watched these issues play out in my own life and the lives of my children. It's getting harder to pay singular attention to each other, harder to switch off that buzz in our brains telling us to "check in," to touch base with our digital technology, whether it be phone or laptop or iPod. It's getting harder to do one thing at a time when you have the option of doing eight. And it's really hard to see the value of just being still.
I don't want my kids to grow up in a world where there's no time to push the pause button and reflect. And as a member of the last generation that remembers what life was like before digital technology, I see it as my duty to teach them the value of a certain kind of attention.
Because these are my problems first -- my kids are still too young to see them as problems yet -- it's easy for me to use them as conversation starters. Rather than put lots of arbitrary rules on my children's use of technology, I talk to them -- frequently -- about my own struggles to manage my relationship with my iPhone and my laptop. I confess my lapses, chastise my husband when he sneaks a peek at his phone during dinner, apologize profusely when I violate my own promise to stay away from all tech while I'm around my kids at dinnertime. It's put a new focus on my parenting. I don't think my kids look at me as someone who has all the answers, but they do see me as someone asking a lot of questions.
And since we don't have many answers yet about this great social revolution we're all in the middle of, asking questions, in my opinion, is the key to successful parenting in the digital age.
So, how are you navigating parenting in the digital age?