To take a historical overview, which would be familiar to many Steiner students from the writing main lesson in Class 4, the Chinese invented the first printing process for text in Ad 600, using wooden blocks and ink. But it didn’t catch on. The fact that 10,000 plus characters were needed, each individually carved, didn’t help. It wasn’t until nearly 1000 years later that the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press brought the potential of mass literacy to fruition. It was the original convergence device. It brought Chinese printing know-how, Korean metal type technology and recent advances in ink and paper manufacture into one device, the first modern printing press. Up to this date every manuscript was laboriously hand copied. Naturally enough books were very expensive; the province of very wealthy individuals or institutions and literacy was very low. So what was the effect of the Guttenberg’s convergence device? Literacy levels crept up in direct correlation to the price of books going down. Books that once might only be owned by great families or institutions were now in the hands of the people. This, it is argued, began the first great information revolution, the Renaissance. This cataclysmic shift in human being’s understanding of themselves, called the enlightenment, is, I would argue, being mirrored in the process we find ourselves in today. The second great information revolution.
Technology in the family.
Let’s consider the smart phone. This is a camera, a computer, a instant messenger, a dictation assistant, a tape recorder, a heart rate monitor, a music player, a computer game player, a reference library, a poker machine, a dispute solver, a companion, and the list goes on. It’s just so useful. The smart phone is a convergence device. That is its power. It brings a vast array of technologies together into a single portable space. It connects humans in a vast variety of new ways, through simultaneous channels.
Doesn’t it seem like the smart phone has been here forever? How many families do not have at least one yet? My family has four. Yet the first iPhone only came out in 2007. The first smart phone actually dates back to the early 80’s but, like Gutenberg’s printing press, the iPhone was when all the pieces fell into the right configuration and the idea really took off. That is only 8 years ago. No wonder we are struggling with impact of technology on the family.
It is my contention that there is no difference between a desktop computer, a laptop a tablet, a phone or even an iPod. They all do basically the same thing. They just come in different sizes. So let’s agree, for arguments’ sake, to treat them as a single thing. So what do we do? Well you tell me, because this is a debate where there are no experts. The pace of change is simply too fast. Steiner said nothing about this. So where do we look for wisdom?
Communication in the online age:
It is the nature of this communication that makes it so interesting and challenging. For example, with a phone…
- I can communicate with one person or a group of people, in situations where I know, more or less, who the other person is. Eg email.
- I can communicate blindly, ie without knowing who is watching me, as in posting a blog.
- I can communicate secretly, ie without the listener knowing who I am, as in a chat room. • I can be social when ever I have this device – I am connected.
- I can have in my pocket. It is always with me.
- I can be out when I am in. That is, I can still be with my friends when I am at home. No more downtime from the social group. No more weekend flops.
- I can be within myself when I am out – plugged in and zoned out. You only have to sit on a Sydney train to see how this is playing out.
This lack of limits to its potential for communication, the fact that it is so flexible, so useful, is where the growing edge is and where the greatest difficulty lies.
What can be a terrific tool for research is, in the same package, a terrific way to waste time. Raold Dahl, in his famous poem against TV accused that technology of creating zoned out passive zombie children, lacking in imagination. I actually don’t see that technology naturally leads that way. I think in the hands of a properly curious Steiner educated child, the whole world of knowledge opens up through technology. But it is this boundary-less nature of technology that requires our reflection and imagination as a family.
The fractured family: from one device to several.
Back in the day, there was one channel. The choice was on and off. After school there were the kid’s programs, followed by the news, followed by the family show which was followed by late night programs that the kids weren’t allowed to watch. In a sense the TV replaced the open fire as a gathering spot for the family.
Then we got multi channels, 2, 3 4 and more. Then the conflict was over who had the remote. Now we have a situation where a family sits down to watch something on TV but members of the family may be checking messages, watching other programs, listening on headphones, posting, organising, or otherwise conducting the performance of virtual me. And what do we fight about now? Who’s using the download? So how do we get what we want out of family life? How do we cultivate the relationships we want, while still being realistic about this powerful force in family life?
Choice #1 Ban it. Get rid of it. I think this is an entirely defensible position. But personally I don’t like your chances of success. The problem with any ban is that there gets to be a discontinuity between what is permissible in your family and with what they see their friends doing in their family or what is happening out in the larger world. As the young people in your life grow in their ability to challenge your decisions, you will not have allowed your child to acculturate to the conditions they face out in society beyond your doors. A further problem with this approach is the need to stop using it yourself or otherwise it has all the moral force of Uncle Larry at the Christmas dinner, cigarette in mouth telling the young ones not to take up smoking.
Choice # 2 Treat it like any powerful thing in your child’s life, TV, drugs, sexuality etc. Through a considered position of agreed family behaviour and limits and parental modelling encourage a balanced approach to technology.
At this point it might be interesting to reflect on the child’s rights as expressed in the UN Rights of the Child.
•#13 Children have the right to get and to share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or to others.
•#14 Children have the right to think and believe what they want and to practise their religion, as long as they are not stopping other people from enjoying their rights. Parents should guide children on these matters.
•#15 Children have the right to meet with other children and young people and to join groups and organisations, as long as this does not stop other people from enjoying their rights.
•#16 Children have the right to privacy. The law should protect them from attacks against their way of life, their good name, their family and their home.
•#17 Children have the right to reliable information from the media. Mass media such as television, radio and newspapers should provide information that children can understand and should not promote materials that could harm children.
•#31 Children have the right to relax, play and to join in a wide range of leisure activities. It makes interesting reading in the light of the internet revolution!
Solutions: The 3 R’s
The 3R’s are Routine, Rhythm and Ritual. They are a tool to evaluate and promote a healthy family life. Routines are regular – they use the force of good habit. Rituals are special – they mark out what is unique to your family culture. Rhythm is about balance. Working with the rhythm of the day.
Possible Routines for Computer
The important point is to be on the front foot with technology. It is your home and you get to set the patterns where technology enters into family life. One of the most powerful ways to engage with technology is to control where in the household it can be used. Include Ipods in this as they are almost as powerful a device as a phone. Through wifi it can access the internet, send email, messages, skype friends., play games and more. Set up a central charging area for all the family devices. When you come through the door after school or work, the phones go into this docking area. This way you can see at a glance if a device is being used. Include your own phone in this routine. After computer time, all laptops must go back there.
Make device access part of the afternoon routine. Make a space for it, perhaps after the schoolbags are empty and they have had a snack and an outside play and done any homework & music practice and before dinner. If your children need to use a computer to do their homework, consider where this is set up. And what sort of computer?
I’m a big believer in using cable not wifi in the house. This is getting harder and harder to do, but if you set up the laptop to only work on cable, then you can control where in the house it can be used.
Set an old desktop computer in the central area. Think of using an old desktop instead of a laptop. Then you can strip all the excess programs off it. If the purpose of the device is homework then just Microsoft office will do (and a browser if it is appropriate.) This can be a good solution for a family with younger children. A second hand or rebuilt desktop computer can be plenty powerful enough. This way it can be set up at a desk so that it is ergonomically correct. ( invest in an office chair – they are not expensive.) Use a big enough desk so that they can spread out their homework. The big advantage is that you can make sure that the screen remains available to your oversight. And you can make sure that the internet access is through a wire. If you decide to/have to use the family laptop for homework, then create separate users for each child. Then you can control the environment better. Using cabled internet will really help here. And will help you specify where the screen faces and allow you oversight.
Modem controls: Most modem’s can be accessed through the browser and inside they will usually have some sort of parental access. software. You can use these settings to control things like the hours that certain devices can access the internet. Just goggle your provider and the modem model number. For example the Telstra one is 10.0.0.138. This can be very useful for phones. You can shut down all the children’s phones after a certain hour. Talk to your internet provider to get help accessing this. You will need to enter that magic number into the address bar of your browser. (Beware though, the converse is also true. A tech savvy teenager will not take too long to discover this and alter the settings for their own convenience!)
Parental controls: There are a range of options here. Apple have a great parental control app which you can access through settings. You can turn individual applications on of off. Eg one child can use mail but the other not. One child can use safari but the other not. You can specify who can load programs. There are many different versions for PC. They are all different. Go online and explore them. Read reviews.
After dinner: This is where rhythm bit comes in. How about deciding that screens are to be off no less than one hour before bedtime. No screens after 8.30 for older children (and adults) What about deciding that phones are not to be looked at during dinner.
NoGo Zones: If there is one place I would encourage drawing the line, it is no technology in the bedrooms. If you set this up early, you stand a chance, in the teenage years, of creating a balanced family life. But to achieve this you will probably need to include your own bedroom.
Morning Routines: Collect phones/ devices as people go out the door. Morning routines are all about moving so better to limit access until the last minute.
Rituals: Focus on the positive parts of technology and create a ritual around it. For example, •Share funny you-tube videos. Let your kids show you just how crazy life is getting out there. Then you have the chance to ask them what they think about that. •Sit down and stream a really good HBO TV series. •Skype grandparents or absent friends.
Be on the front foot
Draw up a schedule of tech uses and decide at what age you think it would be appropriate. Don’t be mean, be realistic. Remember it will change over time, so try to decide on the principles, not the name of a particular app. This will help you allow access to the internet in age appropriate stages. Eg. At what age would you consider it appropriate to…
•Open an email account? Talk to other parents in their peer group. Who are they going to be talking to? Maybe get some common understanding between parents – the principle is that the social loop in the world of email is relatively closed. Explain how to block an email. I know it is old-fashioned but it is a softer step than social media.
•Play a computer game? Not all computer games are born equal. Some are lots of fun. Some are stupidly addictive. Think about them in age appropriate terms. What age might your children be allowed to play an offline game? What about a strategy game like The Sims. What age would they be able to handle an online game? What about a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game like Warhammer?
•Be allowed to have a social media profile? It’s a bit like being allowed to go out at night. The principle of greater unsupervised responsibility is based on their handling of the last level of freedom granted. Help them set up their settings. Many kids (and adults) don’t understand how to control Facebook privacy settings. Show an interest- ask them what they are doing. Get them to show you. One of the best things about computing is showing each other how to do things. Think of it like radical cross age tutoring.
One of the problems we face with the online world is we can’t rely on what we did when we were young. The big question is, who is that other person our young person is talking to and how can we keep a weather eye on it. It is important to find ways to engage with your child. Cybersmart is an excellent government sponsored website with great information for parents and kids. Go there. It has easy to digest tips on cyber safety that will get you up to speed.
Most of all, stay engaged. Try to say as you do and be prepared to interrogate your own habits and set the example.
By Bruce Naylor, © 2015