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The wake-up call for Peter Orban came the day his oldest son strode into the kitchen and announced he’d joined Facebook.
Nine years old at the time, the boy was too young to be on the social network — Facebook bans children under 13 from having an account. Orban, a mobile marketer who was building a Facebook privacy tool at the time, realized his work life was getting personal: He had to figure out how to oversee his kids’ technology.
“Everything changed for me,” Orban says.
Ever since TV became a household necessity, parents have worried about the effects of devices on their children. This fear has only grown as screens connected to the wilds of the Internet become more pervasive, while normal childhood activities — reading, writing and playing — have moved onto devices. American children now spend an average of seven hours per day using gadgets, a habit associated with childhood obesity, erratic sleep patterns and difficulty concentrating, according to the The American Academy of Pediatrics.
For parents who work in technology fields, policing kids’ screen time is even trickier and more personal. Some try to limit their kids’ usage of gadgets, fearing the technology addiction that’s overwhelmed some of their colleagues. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously banned his children from using the iPads and iPods his company churned out, and Silicon Valley’s screen-free Waldorf School is overrun with the kids of influential tech founders.
For others, this logic seems counterintuitive. Many moms and dads who work in tech fields believe that cutting off their kids from the devices that forged their own careers might be destructive, limiting kids’ ability to cope with modern life. In order to make sure their children grow up balanced, but still tech-literate, they must navigate new territory.
Eli Mandel, the founder of PluggedinBD, a digital media consulting firm, has found a kind of happy medium he thinks will help foster his kids’ interest in tech. He gives them free reign over the YouTube Kids app on his iPad, but he keeps them away from anything that contains sexual content.
“I want them to be curious, and if my kids are interested in it, I would push them towards coding,” Mandel told The Huffington Post. “For me, it’s something that I know is a steady profession, and giving them that exposure definitely helps.”
Using devices rewires our brains — but not necessarily in a bad way. Exposure to the web increases our ability to scan, sort, and synthesize short chunks of information, a skill that’s increasingly useful in the modern workplace.
“I believe that technology is the future and that limiting access to it is counterproductive,” said Ana Pajkovic, the founding CEO of Kidster, an online marketplace for children. That’s why she lets her 14-month-old daughter, Hanna, use her iPad. And when Pajkovic and her husband, who is also in the tech industry, work startup hours on their iPhones and iPads or speak in webinars from their living room, she says they’re modeling the benefits of technology to their daughter.
“In many ways, she already lives in the future that the next generation will inhabit,” said Pajkovic.
Some tech workers say that early access to a computer can set the foundation for a lucrative career as a programmer. “I would always have loved computers no matter what, but if my parents had restricted my screen time during my obsessive periods, I don’t think I would be half the programmer I am today,” wrote a commenter on a Hacker News forum devoted to limiting children’s time with tech.
Another commenter complained that a two-hour limit on computer use while growing up had stalled childhood attempts to build things. “Some days I would spend the time outside just sitting and thinking about my program, working out solutions.” That programmer’s advice to parents: “Please don’t restrict mediums. Restrict activities.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children younger than two should not have access to screens, and that parents should restrict older children’s “entertainment media” screen time to one to two hours. But the restrictions don’t differentiate between the different types of activities that screen time can be used for.
The difference between active screen time (creating, reading and interacting with content) and passive time (just vegging out in front of a video) is an important distinction. For Kabir Seth, the father of a 2 1/2-year-old, “any screen time we’re giving him is going to be active screen time.”
This belief in tactile learning inspired Seth to build “Storied Myth,” a digital storytelling game for early readers. As children read the story on a tablet, they interact with physical toys that connect to the app to find clues that relate to the narrative.
The game is part of a new wave of tech toys: part-tactile, part screen-based. Others include Tiggly, a set physical blocks intended for toddlers that interact with an iPad screen, and Roominate, a toy geared towards older girls that enables them to build electrical circuits that they can operate using an iPad app.
“I think by giving kids access to technology, a lot of people might be afraid that they are just going to be spending time staring at a screen,” said Roominate co-founder Alice Brooks. “But I think there are so many ways to empower their creativity. The more they have access to, the more they can really do.”
And not all of Silicon Valley’s elite are sending their kids to schools with laptop bans. At AltSchool, a grade school program founded by former Google employees, technology underlies education. Children check in via wearable tech, a computer calculates personalized lesson plans, parents can view copies of schoolwork through a web portal, and kids complete and submit assignments using Google Docs.
“These are kids who are growing up in a technology environment, who will be using this technology for the rest of their lives,” says Bharat Mediratta, a former engineer at Google who is now the CTO and co-founder of AltSchool. “We want to give them a solid [foundation] to work with.”
“It sometimes means getting construction paper and cutting it into the shape of an elephant,” says Mediratta. “Or sometimes, for a 10-page essay on the Iliad, that means getting out your Chromebook and writing a Google Doc.”
Orban, the mobile marketer, says navigating his kids’ use of technology has only enhanced his career. He’s now the co-founder of a mobile startup that turns text messages into video clips and is targeted toward young people between age 13 and 25.
Orban has chosen to expose his kids to as much technology as possible, with a helping of parental gravitas. As his children use a new technology, he and his wife talk to them about the best ways to use it — and the potential pitfalls.
If Orban’s research has taught him anything, it’s that recreating his own tech-free childhood is impossible in a world where kids’ social networks revolve around technology. Limiting devices, he believes, isn’t a long-term solution.
The compromise he’s reached with technology is part of a digital-age upgrade for what Orban calls the “parents’ handbook.”
“Have an open and loving relationship with your children, so they feel like you trust them,” he says. “But they can also come back and ask questions.”