Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Dad faces tough time limiting tech time in a screen-filled world


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AUSTIN — When my daughter was born, she was born into a little technological wonderland.

Lilly, who is now 5, has a dad who writes about tech products and who is surrounded by them constantly. She went from newborn to infant to toddler in a house with HDTVs, video game consoles, the latest smartphones as they were released, laptops and, by the time her sister was born two years later, iPads.

I grew up in the ‘80s, and it wasn't that different for me. My dad was into computers, so we always had them. My parents took me to video arcades, which I absolutely loved, and they nurtured my geeky side.

So it was with joy and pride that I saw my own little girl learn to intuitively navigate to her favorite storybook apps on an iPad screen, grasp at an eerily early age the concept of DVR recordings of TV shows, and pick up a plastic guitar to jam out on "The Beatles: Rock Band" songs.

When my younger daughter, Carolina, came along, things went a little differently. She wasn't as interested in video games and tech toys at first, and the time constraints of juggling two kids instead of one meant I couldn't spend as much time teaching her to, say, use a computer mouse, or read iPad stories as often.

Over the past year, though, I noticed that the kids were just as happy, if not happier, away from the gadgets. When they were old enough to happily play together without starting World War III, they seemed to be more delighted having pretend tea parties, playing "school teacher" or dressing up in costumes than learning to embrace the possibilities of touch screens or playing video games.

I began to wonder a lot how much I should be doing as a parent to prepare them for the digital road ahead and how much I should keep it away or limit their time using these devices. We know now that experts advise no TV or video screen time for children under 2 (whoops) and that screen time should be limited to just an hour or two a day for the next few years.

The screens are everywhere. They're in the girls' classrooms, all over the house, even in the waiting room at their pediatrician's office, which contains several retro arcade game cabinets and televisions.

My wife and I both have to spend a lot of time in front of computers for work. My kids, very likely, will have to do the same, only the screens they use will certainly be more mobile and much more interactive.

I've decided that, for now at least, I don't really want them to take after Mommy and Daddy in regards to technology. And it's not just because I've felt pangs of guilt when the last bits of daylight are gone and I've realized they didn't spend any of the day outside. Or that I've been snapped to attention when one of them has said to me, "Daddy, put your phone away!"

It's that just as I know that my girls will likely need strong digital skills in their lives to be successful, there will probably soon be a time when they won't have any choice but to be trapped in it.

So I'm trying, in very small baby steps that seem counterintuitive to a tech-inclined person, to shield them. If I ask my daughters whether they want traditional books at bedtime or iPad, they'll always say, "iPad." So now, I don't ask. I reach for a board book from the shelves instead and at least alternate.

We don't often play video games anymore, but if we do, it'll be games that have motion controls like titles for the Xbox 360 Kinect that require you to get off the couch or games that have a physical component of play like "Skylanders," which includes real-world toy figures.

Instead of buying a home computer with a large screen we'd been eyeing for a while, we opted to buy a swing set for the backyard.

It's so much easier to sit the kids in front of the TV, put a game controller in their hands or hand them an iPad with a Disney movie or PBS Kids videos loaded up, especially on road trips. And no judgment on parents who have to do that from time to time: Parenting two kids is the hardest thing I've ever done. Every parent needs a break now and then.

But I think the effort to create tech-free zones in our lives is worth the trouble. I'll fail at it more often than not, I imagine, but I'm determined to do better.

I'll feel successful if they can have more memories of a childhood spent running, playing, climbing and pretending vs. just watching TV, swiping iPad screens and absorbing the world via Internet connection.

Last week, I wrote about taking a break from or quitting social media entirely. It may seem like I'm going from tech columnist to anti-tech curmudgeon. Nothing could be further from the truth. I still get impatient when people complain that life was so much better before the Internet and smartphones (Oh, really? What year was that, exactly?) or when others blame technology for all the evil in the world.

I believe that we're still at the very tip of the edge of understanding how our wired world is changing us and in what ways we can harness these amazing changes to improve the world. That's still not only possible, but probable, I think.

But I also feel that my girls still have a lot of time left to jump into those worlds, harness the tools they're inheriting as digital natives and accept that lofty challenge. For now, though, I refuse to push them into a race to get there.

Maybe it's selfish, but I want to see the faces of my daughters a little longer without the ever-present glow of a screen lighting up their eyes.

Just for a little longer, please.

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