Social media is a given for today’s children, but, as one parent argues, limits should be, too, for their protection and for their development.


Three new books offer advice to parents about online concerns

  • Article by: DWIGHT GARNER
  • New York Times
  • September 13, 2013 - 1:31 PM


My house may be like your house.

As I type these lines, my daughter, Harriet, who is 14, is on her iPhone skipping among no fewer than eight social media sites: Flickr, Tumblr, Kik, Snapchat, Instagram,, Twitter and Vine. Rarely Facebook. Facebook, she says, is so 2011.

My son, Penn, who is 15, will be asleep for hours yet. He was up all night with a friend playing two video games, “Call of Duty” and “Eve.”

My kids are smart, kind and more or less well adjusted. I like that they are comfortable and alert in the wired world, able to fish in it like young bears in a salmon stream. But increasingly I am terrified for them. It’s more apparent every day that computer screens have incrementally stolen them from themselves, and stolen them from us.

My wife, Cree, and I have allowed them to drift quite distantly into the online world, and we fear our casualness has been a calamity. Our kids are paler than they should be, ill at ease with casual boredom, squirmy without Wi-Fi. Their grades are not what they should be. We fear we have left them, as it were, to their own devices.

Each summer Cree and I resolve to rein things back in. This is when we draft stern rules for a new school year, strictures like: no laptops in bedrooms during the week; homework before screen time; no electronics after 10 p.m.; no iTunes purchases without advance permission, not even that 99-cent Rihanna remix.

These rules invariably begin to crack by Day 3. By Day 4, there is pleading, and the discreet slamming of doors. By Day 5, Harriet is making cryptic remarks about us on Twitter. By Day 6, we are all aggrieved.

By Day 7, Cree and I are threatening them with the treatment a friend calls “the Full Amish” — all plugs pulled. By Day 8, the start of the second week of school, no one is sure what the rules are anymore. We’re back where we started, and plump with dread.

This year it occurred to me we needed help. So I sat down with three new books that offer assistance, understanding and quasi-epic subtitles. They are: “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” by Catherine Steiner-Adair with Teresa H. Barker; “The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul,” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang; and “The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World,” by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. (I read an advance copy of this last one; it won’t be published until October.)

Look at yourself

Steiner-Adair, the primary author of “The Big Disconnect,” is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Her book is based on thousands of interviews, and it can be eloquent about the need to ration our children’s computer time.

Before she speaks about how to pry our kids away from their phones, tablets and laptops, Steiner-Adair looks parents quite sternly in the eye. She describes a generation of us who are “unavailable, disconnected or narcissistic.” We spend the expanse of our days — even those of us paid to keep our eyes glued to the nonelectronic page — gazing into our phones, scanning for the next text, e-mail or tweet.

The message we communicate to our kids, she writes, is: “Everybody else matters more than you.” Children, she declares, “are tired of being the ‘call waiting’ in their parents’ lives.”

Steiner-Adair has chastened me. Her advice is akin to that given on airplanes about the potential loss of cabin pressure: Put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help your children.

It’s much more agreeable to make rules for others, as every dictator is aware, than to police yourself. So here’s some of what I learned from “The Big Disconnect.” The author is big on privacy settings on computers used by children. She stresses speaking to them about online civility, and suggests this:

“This is not your computer — I know it has your name on it, but this is my computer (or your school’s computer). I’m your parent, and I reserve the right to see everything that’s going on there. You need to be on the computer in an open place. I have the right to know what your homework assignment is. You can’t be in your room with the door closed. You can’t take it to bed with you. You can’t collapse a screen when I walk by. We have a code of conduct and we expect you to stick with it: Don’t be mean, don’t lie, don’t embarrass other people, don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, don’t go places you’re not allowed to go. Don’t post pictures that Grandma wouldn’t love. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t approve of.”

Be mindful

Pang, the author of “The Distraction Addiction,” is a futurist who has been a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford Universities. His book isn’t so much about parenting as it is about what he calls “contemplative computing.” He gets pretty Zen.

Pang doesn’t want you to unplug. He wants you to achieve balance, to “reach flow,” to achieve a “mirrorlike mind.” His first seven chapters are titled: “Breathe,” “Simplify,” “Meditate,” “Deprogram,” “Experiment,” “Refocus” and “Rest.” In one of my favorite locutions of 2013, he suggests that it is possible to go about “tweeting mindfully.”

“Tweeting mindfully means knowing your intentions; knowing why you’re online right now and asking yourself if you’re on for the right reasons,” he declares.

How are your apps?

“The App Generation” is a slab of groaning sociology that nonetheless possesses an interesting insight. “Young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps,” write the authors, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, “but they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps, or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app.”

Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. They see the upsides as well as the downsides of an app-driven life. At its best, their book has a moral quality that put me in mind of something Bill Gates recently said in an interview: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

Cree and I are still hammering out our kids’ computer rules for the 2013-14 school year. We are trying to keep in mind that we’re not our kids’ best friends, we’re their parents.

And we are wondering if there’s an app for fortitude.

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