I see you looking at me from the other side of the coffee shop — yes, you: the hemp-swaddled mom with the slightly sticky child who is playing with that organic wooden toy. You probably hope that toy will teach her hand-eye coordination or bring him into harmony with the forest from which that toy was made.
I see you giving me the hairy eyeball, because while your child is banging her toy against the table and annoying everyone around you, my two children are absorbed in the iPhones that are currently sucking out their brains and preparing them for enslavement to their future robot overlords. That’s what you’re thinking, right?
Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of friends just like you. They’re keeping their kids offline because they want them to have “real” relationships, experience “real” creativity and feel comfortable in the “real” world.
And I get that. I want all those things for my kids, too. I just have a different understanding of what “real” means.
My kids will get to have real relationships — not just the face-to-face friendships with the kids who happen to go to the same school, but the deep conversations that are possible when you find people who share your passions and interests, and who judge you based on what you say instead of what you wear. The kinds of relationships that unfold all over the Internet, and are often the first authentic relationships for kids who have to hide their true feelings, their fears or their sexuality from the people they see offline every day.
My kids already experience real creativity — and not just the kind that covers our dining room table in glitter glue (though there’s plenty of that, too). They’re making movies and writing programs and drawing pictures on a computer tablet. Even my younger kid — the one with fine motor skill lags that make it hard to use a pen — gets to experience real creativity, thanks to the Internet: he builds the most amazingly detailed Minecraft villages you’ve ever seen, and when he gets tired of that, he blogs his wildly imaginative stories about the villagers. My kids’ digital art may not be any more creative than what your kid does with pipe cleaners and finger paints…but it is absolutely “real” creativity.
As for feeling comfortable in the “real” world: well, that’s where your kid is at a disadvantage. Because the world that our kids will live in — both your kid and mine, together — is a world that is now digital as well as analog. Even you now live in a world that includes email and Facebook and Instagram (oh yes, I saw you sneaking a glance at your own iPhone); your kid will live in a world where all those communication tools, and many more, will be part of her daily life.
But when she finally makes his way into that hybrid digital/analog world at the age of 13 (or 14, or 15, or whenever you finally let the poor guy get his own email address), she’s going to be a stranger in a strange land. You may know the dangers he’ll face there and the skills he’ll need, but by the time you let hier into that world, she’ll be too old to listen to you.
Instead of being a digital heir raised by a wise adult, your kid will be a digital orphan. Her online mentors will be whichever kids, teens and adults she happens to encounter in her virtual travels. And if she’s like the children of other parents who’ve limited their kids’ screen access, she’ll be twice as likely as my kids to access online porn or post hostile comments, and three times as likely to get up to real mischief like impersonating other people online.
The good news is that it’s not too late for you to step into the role she needs you to play. She needs you to be her digital mentor: to talk with her about the online world, to put in the hours finding the games and apps that will help her learn and grow, and to actually connect with her by exploring and gaming together.
Do that work, and you’re not only helping your kid: you’re helping mine. Because I don’t want my kids to live in a digital world that’s made up of people who had to raise themselves online: people who stumble onto the Internet without knowing how to have authentic online conversations instead of flame ward, how to use digital tools for creative self-expression instead of cat memes, or how to make meaningful online connections instead of accumulating meaningless likes. Or worse yet, people who don’t care about authenticity, creativity or connection in the first place.
The digital world needs kids like yours: kids whose parents care so much about authenticity, creativity and connection that you think carefully before letting them online. So do that thinking, and then do something just as crucial: hand your kid that iPhone, and show her what it means to use it in a way that makes both the offline and online worlds into the worlds we want our kids to inherit.