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Parenting in the age of the internet

A toddler using an iPhone on the floor

I learned to read and write on computers.

Our first home computer, the Sinclair ZX81, had BASIC shortcuts built into the keyboards: you could hit a key combination and words like RUN, THEN, and ELSE would spit out onto the screen. I wrote a lot of early stories using those building blocks.

Our second, the Atari 130XE, had similar BASIC instructions, but also had a much stronger software ecosystem. In one, you would type a rudimentary story, and 8-bit stick figure characters would act it out on screen. “The man walks to the woman”; “The wumpus eats the man.”

We never had a games console in the house, much to my chagrin, although the Atari could take games cartridges, and I once got so far in Joust that the score wrapped back around to 0. But mostly, I used our computers to write stories and play around a little bit with simple computer programming (my mother taught me a little BASIC when I was five).

We walk our son to daycare via the local elementary school. This morning, as we wheeled his empty stroller back past the building, a school bus pulled up outside and a stream of eight-year-olds came tumbling out in front of us. As we stood there and watched them walk one by one into the building, I saw iPhone after iPhone after iPhone clutched in chubby little hands. Instagram; YouTube; texting.

It’s obvious that he’ll get into computers early: he’s the son of someone who learned to write code at the same time as writing English and a cognitive scientist who does research for a big FAANG company. Give him half a chance and he’ll already grab someone’s phone or laptop and find modes none of us knew existed — and he’s barely a year old. The only question is how he’ll get into computers.

I’m adamant with him, as my parents were with me, that he should see a computer as a creation, not a consumption device. At their best, computers are tools that allow children to create things themselves, and learn about the world in the process. At their worst, they’re little more than televisions, albeit with a near-infinite number of channels, that needlessly limit your horizons. For many kids, social media is such a huge part of of their life that being an influencer is their most hoped-for job. No thank you: not for my kid.

But, of course, if we can steer away from streaming media and Instagram’s hollow expectations, there’s a ton of fun to be had. This is one area where I think generative AI could be genuinely joyful: the fun that I had writing stories for those 8-bit stick figures, transposed to a whole universe of visual possibilities. That is, of course, unless using those tools prevents him from learning to draw himself.

He’s entering a very different cultural landscape where computers occupy a very different space. Those early 8-bit machines were, by necessity, all about creation: you often had to type in a BASIC script before you could use any software at all. In contrast, today’s devices are optimized to keep you consuming, and to capture your engagement at all costs. Those iPhones those kids were holding are designed to be addiction machines.

Correspondingly, our role as parents is to teach responsible use. If we are to be good teachers, that also means we have to demonstrate responsible use: something I am notoriously bad at with my own phone. I’ve got every social network installed. I sometimes lose time to TikTok. I’m a slave to my tiny hand-computer in every way I possibly can be. I tell myself that I need to know how it all works because of what I do for a living, but the real truth is, I love it. I don’t need to be on social media; I don’t need to be a part of the iPhone Upgrade Program. I just am.

I think responsible use means dialing up the ratio of creation to consumption for me, too. If I’m to convey that it’s better to be an active part of shaping the world than just being a passive consumer of it, that’s what I have to do. This is true in all things — a core, important lesson is that there isn’t one way to do things, and life is richer if you don’t follow the life templates that are set out for us — but in some ways I feel it most acutely in our relationship to technology.

There will certainly be peer pressure. His friends will have iPhones. I don’t think withholding technology is the right thing to do: consider those kids whose parents never let them have junk food, who then go out and have as much junk food as possible as soon as they can. Instead, if he has an iPhone, he will learn how to make simple iPhone apps. You’d better believe that he’ll learn how to make websites early on (what kind of indieweb advocate would I be otherwise?). He will be writing stories and editing videos and making music. And, sure, he’ll be consuming as part of that — but, in part, as a way to get inspired about making his own things.

These days, creating also means participating in online conversations. As he gets older, we’ll need to have careful discussions about the ideas he encounters. I’m already imagining that first conversation about why Black Lives Matter is an important movement and how to think about right-wing content that seeks to minimize other people. I don’t want our kid to be a lurker who thinks people should be happy with what they get; I want him to feel like the world is his oyster, and that he can help change it for the better. Our devices can be a gateway to bigger ideas, or they can be a path to a constrained walled garden of parochial thought. It all requires guidance and trust.

The computer revolution happened between my birth and his. Realizing so makes me feel as old as dust, but more importantly, it opens up a new set of parental responsibilities. I want to help him be someone who creates and affects the world, not someone who lets the world happen to him. And there’s so much world to see.

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