Raising Children in the Age of the Smartphone

Last week, NPR’s Science Friday host Ira Flatow spoke with social scientist Sherry Turkle, occasioned by the release of her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Part of their conversation addressed parents’ inability to control themselves around technology, and children feeling like their competing with iPhones and laptops for the parents’ attention. As a father who plays Words With Friends at the playground, and who jokes that if my son wants me to pay attention, he needs to be more interesting than my iPhone, I became a bit uncomfortable listening to this conversation.

But then I wondered, “Haven’t children always competed for their parents’ attention?” The conversation suggested that before smartphones, we had a magical time where parents wholly devoted their attention to their children. If I didn’t have a smartphone, I’d be bringing books to the playground. Thinking back to my childhood, there was always multitasking — conversations with others, cooking, watching television, etc. In families with lots of children, there’s competition between them. Or children having to compete with their parents’ work and chore schedules. I realized children have always fought for their parents’ attention, and it’s unreasonable for people to feel that if you’re not 100% committed to your child all the time, you’re somehow being less of a parent.

Now, I think there are some very real problems with technology and child-rearing (we’ve had to closely monitor Jules’ iPad use because he started to throw fits when we limited his access to it). But we need to start from a baseline of reasonable expectations for parents’ engagement.

The Paperless Office: I CALLED IT!

In 2002, I wrote a lengthy response to Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on The Social Life of Paper. Gladwell was addressing a recent book at the time, The Myth of the Paperless Office, and coming to the conclusion, with them, that all this gee-whiz computer technology is not leading to a paperless office, and paper is great, and computers aren’t so great, and hey, you kids, get off my lawn.

Actually, he didn’t say, “hey, you kids, get off my lawn,” but I’ve just now added that because, at the time, I suspected that a significant factor for why we hadn’t seen a paperless office was generational. In my post, I discussed how Adaptive Path (a year old at the time) was highly electronic, particularly in its inner workings. We used paper for deliverables to clients, and contractual documents, and not much else. I finished my post with:

I think what needs to be studied are the differences in computer and paper use across generations. Because I think that the primacy of paper in knowledge work is not simply because of the technology’s affordances; I suspect that it’s largely because “it’s always been done that way.” For me, who begin typing on a word processor at age 12, and who has no trouble reading long stretches of text on a screen, I don’t find that paper necessarily supports my knowledge work any better than digital documents. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone.

(Yes, I know it’s obnoxious quoting myself. But it saves you the time for going back to read it.)

Anyway, the most recent issue of The Economist discusses the “return of the paperless office,” and contains such copy as:

“It’s a generational thing,” says Greg Gibson, in charge of North American office paper at International Paper (IP), the world’s largest paper-maker. Older people still prefer a hard copy of most things, but younger workers are increasingly comfortable reading on screens and storing and retrieving information on computers or online. As a result, IP has closed five uncoated-freesheet mills in America in the past decade, and the industry is consolidating. …

As new generations of office workers leave university—where their class notes and syllabuses are online these days—they take their habits with them…

And, we get FURTHER proof that Gladwell, though a good storyteller, is terrible at trendspotting and theory-making.

One thing I’ve noticed at Adaptive Path is that, as we’ve grown, we’ve consumed more and more paper relative to our growth. This is because we started hiring more and more folks trained in design and fine arts, and physical materials are crucial for their work. If AP is any indicator, the future for paper is not in documentation, but in creativity. We sketch, draw, scribble, and design with paper all the time. We’ll go through reams of paper as we stream ideas from our fingertips. But we still rarely print deliverables or other documentation. Paper companies need to figure out how to cater to the creative use of paper in the workplace. I’d love to be a researcher in that study…