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technology ambivalence

May 27, 2011

When Col recently asked me what a torpedo was, I pulled out my 2138-page dictionary and we looked it up. But when he asked, “how did they pull whales up on ships after they harpooned them?” I turned on my computer and did a Google search. When we couldn’t identify the orange, 2-humped spider living in our gooseberry bush in any field guide, the internet revealed in less than a minute that it was a cat-faced spider.

And yet, I haven’t quite come clean about the internet to my children, as in “oh, those four hundred and fifty six questions you ask everyday? You can get the answers in just one click on the internet.

I’m not sure if I’m delaying springing the concept of the world wide web on the kids because I was 26 before I even had an e-mail address and I’m just stewing in my own moldy nostalgia, or if it’s that the internet seems like some sort of gateway drug leading to, I don’t know…the internet?

Last week I told Col I would play Legos with him after I sent out a quick e-mail message. “Oh,” he said knowingly, “that’s like when you send out a message and the wind carries it off.” Precisely.

And it’s not that I want Col and Rose to scrub their buckskin clothes on a washboard down by the creek – the creek with a healthy leech population (we just read the part in On the Banks of Plum Creek where Laura wades in Plum Creek and gets covered in blood-sucking leeches, Oy! And then Ma says “a few leeches are nothing to cry about.”). But nevertheless, I’m ambivalent about all this technology, which is a little like being ambivalent about Halloween candy and waking up on November 1st drooling chocolate and surrounded by empty fun-size wrappers. Because here I am, blogging.

And part of it is that I turn on the computer to do something very specific – pay a bill, work on a story, send an e-mail – but first I check some important website, which leads me to a link I want to read…and twenty minutes later I’ve clicked myself so far out to sea, I can barely make out my original task on the shore.

Dan recently found a box of letters from the mid-nineties – they were so precious and quaint. Letters from his parents, his brother, friends, and stacks of hand-written letters that I had sent him from approximately 1.7 miles across town. It was 1995; we didn’t have e-mail or tiny phones we could carry in our pockets, and often we didn’t even know each others whereabouts for like, a whole day or two, which seemed perfectly normal, as normal as sitting down with a cup of coffee and enjoying a hand-written letter.

Do your kids know of the fathomless depths of the online universe? What’s your internet policy with your children? And with yourself? 

29 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2011 8:03 am

    Unfortunately, my kids know lots about the www. My 5 year old can get on the computer and find in 15 seconds flat. It feels awful and good at the same time.

  2. May 30, 2011 8:05 am

    “When we didn’t know each other’s whereabouts for a whole day!” radical! This really has changed things.

    My daughter graduated this weekend. My mother-in-law is here and I’m asking her what the next months will be like for me by having her tell me about when each of her children left home.

    My husband got in a car and drove to Alaska. No one heard from him for weeks at a time. And he’d been a face at the dinner table every night up til then.

    I think I hate technology and all the ways to makes things seem hallow and unconnected until I think of a moment like that. I’d have been so pained to be the mother waiting for a phone call for 3 weeks straight, and it didn’t come and didn’t come.

    Give me facebook and my girl’s I-phone and let me watch as her adventure unfolds. Does that make her adventure any less real? Maybe. Maybe some of the fear factor is gone because of the connection.

    Then again, maybe she’ll feel more firmly planted and be willing to jump that much higher as a result.

  3. Sherene permalink
    May 30, 2011 9:56 am

    My hubby and I have stacks of kitchen counter notes. I have them tucked in journals and books. Now days you send a quick text, but 10 years ago I left a little note with x’s and o’s regarding my whereabouts and when I’d be home. I do enjoy the sweet texts from him in the middle of the day- but sometimes I leave the counter note anyway.

  4. May 30, 2011 10:31 am

    We’ll probably treat the internet like sugar: a slow and careful introduction. Obviously, I’m a blogger, but we’re a little slow on the techno front in other ways. I don’t carry a cell phone. I have sent one text message in my life. My husband and I still write each other love notes, on *paper*. xo

  5. Ellen permalink
    May 30, 2011 12:34 pm

    It has often felt like, as Col said, the wind has carried off the message. The most amazing thing is that we CAN be in touch with people. . . I had a text message conversation back and forth to Colorado while on top of a 10,000 foot mountain in rural China. And emails and calls from and to everywhere. It must be the wind.

  6. Diane H permalink
    May 30, 2011 1:41 pm

    Since Mom and Dad are techie geeks, my son has an awareness of the internet. He uses the computer for video calls with his grandparents and to watch some streaming shows over Netflix (sesame street, blues clues, bob the builder, …) since we don’t have a TV.

    Also, youtube and google are great ways to see something instantly. We’ve googled everything from The Beatles to Hammerhead sharks to Mickey Mouse.

    Limiting screen time is not really an issue, yet.

  7. May 30, 2011 4:13 pm

    My hubby just got his own email address two weeks ago. He and Col seem to have the same ideas. My husband searches ebay and craigslist for old boats, tractors and trucks once the kids are asleep. Last year, I unlocked the PBS Kids game site and it was like a giant pixie stick of addiction. I couldn’t get past the “just one more game pleeeeeeaaaaasssssseeee.” I couldn’t find a balance for them, so we don’t play games anymore. We look up animal facts from strange questions on the web together, or watch You Tube videos of flying squirrels and stuff. We Skype family, write emails to cousins. My four year old, when naming who was *smart*, said, “That Internet is smart. They have all the answers.” Yup…

  8. May 30, 2011 4:19 pm

    the internet is a gateway drug to the internet…precisely! or perhaps broken down into bits and bites, it’s this…the internet is like an addiction to beachcombing, without the benefits of connection with nature and presence. wasting time on the net is rewarded in exponential time lapses, following little trails of brain candy. “i’ll just click on this and then that and then consume this piece of info and then entertain that little bored piece of my brain and then tickle that little craving”….we wind up with less nourishment than a box of sugar cereal.

    i blog. my partner has an iphone he obsessively checks. my daughter already knows that youtube is awesome. the internet is the devil, and it sits at our kitchen table. right now the effort is placed upon counterbalancing. eat all your veggies, you get dessert. go hiking and then you can watch youtube.

    in all honesty, i worry far more about how to keep my daughter away from video games than i do street drugs.

  9. May 30, 2011 6:08 pm

    Skype. Yes. All the rest, a very mixed bag.

    In our house, no TV. But a (otherwise) fine uncle has just given my daughter an iPad. Yeesh. What about me? Okay, but really, he unleashed a mini-monster in our house. Yes there was kid-related internet (for checking on French conjugation or looking at photos) and that was about it. My 10 year old’s fine, but my 5 year old son has discovered the world of video games (albeit low key things, like checkers and air hockey and stocking your aquarium)–all this through the gateway of the iPad. And he can’t get enough. Suddenly, I’m saying “No. Because.” and “If you keep asking it will end up in the attic.”

    Should I instead call it the iPandora’s Box?

  10. May 30, 2011 8:18 pm

    We are raising little techno-illiterate nerds, for the time being. Mostly by accident, partially by design. They will soon go to school, and will soon outstrip our knowledge (and interest) in all things internet. Their uncles are techno-wizards who grew up as rural as could be, with no access whatsoever to anything, who somehow found the means to purchase a computer way back in oh, 1984. I have a bit of what will be, will be attitude now, but that’s easy to say when the only concept of the computer is that it’s often “toast”. I know 4 year olds that can navigate the internet; if I told mine about the mouse, he would no doubt go fetch a cat.

  11. Emily permalink
    May 30, 2011 9:25 pm

    “and twenty minutes later I’ve clicked myself so far out to sea, I can barely make out my original task on the shore.” Yep, me too. So every now and then I declare a moratorium on my own internet use (work email in the morning, and personal before bed). And then it flows and ebbs again.

    The kids and I occasionally watch a u-tube video, or look up flora and fauna. But we do it together, which seems to make it less… I dunno, antisocial? addictive? Dare I say we use the internet together mindfully?

    Of course here I am reading your blog (and replying), while the bread isn’t being baked for tomorrow and the granola hasn’t been started. Oh, and there is chicken broth to strain and refrigerate.

  12. May 30, 2011 10:04 pm

    Gosh Rachel! SO well-said! I adore your ability to capture elements of life that seem to be indescribable! We “google” everything – all those questions, and my only thought about issues you’ve raised is that, I don’t think you need to let your kids in on the secret. They already know…. It will never be a big deal to them, because it’s entirely part of the world they live in, and while I so clearly remember thinking the concept of “email” was beyond stupid, I know that my kid will chuckle someday over the idea of hand-writing a letter… and I guess, the love of fine stationary will be lost forever by then!

  13. May 30, 2011 10:40 pm

    I was just rummaging through some boxes of my old stuff and found a school paper of mine … hand-written … in cursive … on wide-ruled notebook paper. It felt as ancient as an illuminated manuscript. Of course, I had to keep it to show my kiddos when they start hammering out essays on their laptops, which I assume will be a requirement by the time they’re in school.

    And Internet access? It’s like handing over the remote control, isn’t it? You never know what they’ll end up watching.

  14. Melissa permalink
    May 30, 2011 11:07 pm

    I’m reading a novel, Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, that imagines us in a future where we don’t read actual books anymore– good stuff, but also chilling.

    Our kids are still too little, or so I thought, because the other day Avi’s preschool teacher was telling them about the blackberries that would soon emerge from their garden and he helpfully piped up, “My mommy has a blackberry!” Sheesh.

    And I got online tonight with the intention to blog (because our girl turned one and we had an epic party and I want to document–for them, for me) but it’s like 45 min later and I’m post fb and blog surfing and now my eyes are blurry so yes, it’s a slippery slope. I’m just glad you are talking about it because sometimes that’s all we can do. And set limits.

    PS. Thought of you on my walk home from Ashby BART–I usually take Prince and these fellas were giving me the holla and I giggled to myself, the bedraggled social worker mama booking home from work just before 7 on a Saturday night, desperate to get to the family, and it was just too funny. I lifted my hand to them in a weak salutation to much fanfare. A lot of interesting characters in our hood, for sure!

  15. Chi-An permalink
    May 31, 2011 12:00 am

    Huh. I wouldn’t say that my kids know the fathomless depths, but they play in the surf on a regular basis. Although not as much as some kids we know, who swim in deep waters every waking moment.

    Oddly enough, despite, or probably because, both my husband and I are in computer fields (he’s a systems administrator for a lab at UC, I write educational software), we limit our kids’ screen time. So they get some Netflix and some iPod usage, but not a lot of time spent on the Internet itself.

    My 7-year-old has been playing online chess for almost a year now, and we’ve had some long talks about what kind of personal info you reveal on the Internet. He plays with random opponents and sort of wants them to know that he’s young, hoping they will cut him a break. But we’ve told him very firmly, you don’t tell your real name, your age, your address or your phone number.

    I’m really not looking forward to the day my kids want to open their own Facebook account. Although I feel like when that day comes, the battle will be more like “But Moooommmmm… EVERYONE ELSE in 8th grade has a neural implant phone! Why can’t I have one?!?”

  16. May 31, 2011 7:06 am

    We have tried to use the word “balance” often in our language at home, but, the truth this, the use of technology as a whole, is completely imbalanced in our society. It’s everywhere, from the grocery store, to the cars, even some restaurants now have kiosks at the table where you can order drinks, desserts, browse movie times, play games and pay the bill. Crazy. But this is where it’s going, and I am not sure if I have the right to deny my kids what is inevitable in their future, what is inevitable now. Our computer sits employed daily in our home as I blog, as we homeschool, as I pay bills, search for opportunities to explore, and as my hubs tries to make a livelihood with his passions for creating. They see us use it, and to them it is as natural as anything else we do.

    I think the question I have had to ask myself is, if I find other activities just as, or even more important, than the use of technology, am I modeling that to my children? Do I model writing letters, taking walks in the woods, reading a “real” books, and doing activities non technology related? Because I really believe that is where my kids will understand balance. To be completely honest, I had trouble with this recently. Blogging opened a new world for me online and I was getting too hooked and clicking away as others mentioned above. My kids noticed too, and they made it clear it bothered them. They reminded me of my own balance :). I have since adjusted my blog routine and it’s been sooo much better. Balance always seem to be the best solution :).

    So anyway, yes, technology is utilized in some form on a daily basis. My son, 8, uses it to help with his Pokemon gaming, or to learn how to type, or to watch Brain Pop jr., or to look up something he wants to know. My daughter, 6, loves it for Discovery, Kidzui, or PBSkids. We have filters on all our computers so I don’t have to worry about explicit content popping up on our searches. If I notice the minutes starting to creep up on usage, I let them know and offer to engage in another activity with them. Some days they do more than usual, other days they do less, all depends on our plans for the day :).

    Oh goodness, I’ve gone and written a novel. So sorry! Thank you for such thought provoking post!!

  17. Christy permalink
    May 31, 2011 7:14 am

    Here is my confession that astounds my friends: I don’t Facebook. I did, for a brief time. And yes, it was an easy way to share photos with friends and family. But…but I just got uncomfortable with how much people were putting out there. And when Facebook had its very short-lived boneheaded “we own your pics” moment, that ended it for me. And I don’t miss it. We also don’t have I-phones or smartphones. Just an extra cost that I don’t need. (And as much as I long for Words with Friends, that seems a silly reason to buy a phone!)
    We didn’t text message until my step-son left for tech school. Then with different time zones and a very busy young man it was an easy way to stay connected. The boys did have cell phones in high school, which we loved. Teenage tracking devices. And they could reach us if they needed us. (When the older one rolled his car on a wet stormy night for example) But they both declined when given the option of paying for their own texting or having it blocked.
    And you know Rachel, your kids will have an excellent example of balance from Dan and you. Not only do they play outside, so do their parents! And though they see you on the computer, I’m sure they also see you reading books.
    (And my heart will break if books ever become obsolete. I have a Kindle and enjoy it for trips. But it just isn’t the same as a book. The feel, the smell, the weight of a book. At least to me ;) )

  18. May 31, 2011 9:56 am

    We just let our 9 year old get an email address. She can email her grandparents directly, which is a fabulous new way of communicating with them. She’s really developing a relationship with them outside of us. She also asked to start a blog. So, my 9 year old is a blogger. It’s set up with super tight restrictions, you have to be invited to view it and she lets me control who is on that list. I just didn’t want to squelch her creativity by saying no to it and she uses it as a platform for some of her short stories. She also likes to get on the computer and play around on Photoshop, which she then posts the products of that on her blog.

    As a general rule, she does not get unlimited computer time. Nor is it unsupervised. She has her own profile set up on our main family computer, with pretty strict security settings. That said, she has figured out how to get around that and we’ve talked about it. She’s very good with technology, so we try to make sure it’s not all video games. Although she likes those an awful lot too. She was given a hand-me-down Ninendo DS by one of the older neighborhood boys who had gotten a new one and has managed to acquire a good number of games to go with it, including one called “Party Planner” that has me intrigued. She knows how to use my for-emergencies-only cell phone better than I.

    Despite her techie skills, she is still expected to sit down and write a formal thank you note, rather than an email, to her grandparents for their birthday gifts. And the day she scored a goal in soccer, we made her call them, although we did let her email them the photo.

  19. Molly permalink
    May 31, 2011 12:12 pm

    My three year old knows that some videos are available only when we are at home, and not when we are traveling. She knows that Youtube can show her anything – whales spouting, little kids dancing or playing instruments. She instantly knew that Skype on my iPod with a camera meant she could SHOW her grandmas everything in her room, instead of just talking about it. I’m internet-ish, though somewhat less so in summer. I’m a terribly visual person, and I love to be able to scan free, convenient pictures for ideas for making things or changing my house. And recipes. And I left a tight knit social justice community on the other side of the country to move to Durango, so Facebook is the virtual half of my front porch. But her screen time is generally limited, and I do not free-browse during my child’s awake time. I know what you mean about the paper letters – I just cherry picked through mine, editing my collection to make room in the file cabinet for art supplies instead of paper traces of people I no longer relate with, in many cases. I am considering pick up a paper letter writing habit again… BTW, when Lucinda is old enough to browse the web at all, the big, generally visible TV in our living room will be her monitor. First line of defense.

  20. May 31, 2011 1:29 pm

    i am with you, rachel. i definitely have ambivalence, and the way you put this into words is so perfect. i don’t think quinn knows what the internet is. i don’t even know if i’ve intentionally hidden it from him, but i don’t have internet service at home, and don’t use my laptop there. when he asks to go to the library these days, it is to use one of the computers there in the kids section, to “play pooh” and he picked up how to use a mouse in a scary short microsecond at age 3. it’s been about a year of that (maybe biweekly trips to play pooh for an hour) and he hasn’t even had the urge to try another game (dora, clifford, there are a handful set up on those old desktops there). while he is playing pooh, i utilize the library’s wireless on my laptop, and do some blogging or update etsy or geek out on permaculture forums or, yes, go completely out to sea clicking away merrily. i realize my own relationship with the internet is so addictive, and i am not sure how the future will look, if i ever get away from the desk job and am somewhere living off the land like i want to be. if that happens, i probably will still restrict our internet use to times when we are at the library, if only because we will hopefully be so busy with what is right in front of us and real to be sucked into the screen. the only thing that keeps me from getting completely sucked in while i’m working is that big brother is supposedly watching me, and that um i have work i am supposed to do. otherwise i’m kind of a crack baby. i don’t know the answer, whatsoever. i do think the internet is a wonderful tool, i don’t want quinn to be deprived- both because i don’t want the pendulum to then swing back to the other extreme, and because i think it’s a worthwhile tool- i just want it to be one tool in the box, not the be all and end all. how are we going to have an internet once fossil fuels are all gone, for one thing? we are all reskilling ourselves on how to do things like make cheese and spin fiber and other dying skills, we see the relevance of those things with the world being kinda unstable, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think that one day our kids might be relearning how to crack open the dictionary/encyclopedia/card catalog… (p.s. if the internet ever does shut down, wanna be penpals?)

  21. May 31, 2011 3:04 pm

    Hello, my friend, I’m back in the blogging saddle and thrilled to be catching up with you here.

    My kids are still pretty little so their exposure to the Internet has been very limited to things like looking at pictures of family friends and watching footage of the space shuttle launch. But I’m on the Internet way too much and, like you, I often find myself very far away from where I intended to go after only a few minutes.

    A friend of mine only uses the computer once a day when her husband gets home from work with his laptop; during the day, she makes a list of everything she wants to do on the Internet and then she does it. No dabbling around.

    That shows a level of restraint that I’m not sure I have. And with my laptop so close at hand all the time, I don’t know that I’d be able to control my twitching fingers.

  22. May 31, 2011 6:20 pm

    I can definitely relate to how oddly addicting and bottomless the internet can be. I didn’t have it for about two days last week when the “free” service from our neighbors wasn’t getting paid (hah! well, that’s what we get for using their unlocked internet) and had to wait to get ours installed. I felt really weird and out of place. And considering I’m anti-TV and don’t watch it this was really surprising to me. It’s so easy to get lost in news stories/blogs/funny websites for a ridiculous amount of time. I’m going to have to start scaling back or I won’t have much of a life this summer!

  23. May 31, 2011 8:44 pm


    I mean, like you, I blog. Started in 2002, and on SG, keeping up an entire alter persona. I shop quite a bit for us online. I use email for a wide variety of volunteer groups I am a part of. (Some of which send upwards of 50+ messages a day).

    While I laugh that most of our agricultural queries cannot be answered by Google a lot of the time (are we THAT outside the box?) so much stuff can be. And I can also email my goat breeder pictures of my sick goat, and she in turn sends it to her goat friends, and then POOF I have SO MUCH MORE SUPPORT. Likely the difference between life and death! Go internet.

    And yet, I loathe it. LOATHE the time it takes away from my seeing my actual, real life next door neighbours. I am now on FuckBook and it drives me UP THE WALL. I have archived my acct & returned… you know, nobody sends pictures of their babies anymore?! I get an email saying “baby pictures are on FB”. Like, “you are such a loser because you don’t already KNOW that and I’m not going to even EMAIL you pictures to punish you”. (Or something).

    We don’t have cell phones. My kids will NOT have a cell phone until they can buy it and pay for it. I will be very picky about internet, as I am about television. I am SICK to death of seeing toddlers carting about $250 Gameboy/iNintentdo/WhatevertheHECKitIS jobbers, I mean not only can I not AFFORD to give that technology to my kids, I don’t WANT to. (We don’t need more technological waste or overzealous wasting of rare earth minerals….. god when did I turn into such a HIPPY!)

    Anyway. Time limited internet is my plan. Hopefully, they will all just have too much to do and won’t have the time to do anything else other than check email and do some quick research.

  24. May 31, 2011 9:51 pm

    I love your description of the net. So perfect.
    For us, with three littles under the age of 5, we spend almost no time whatsoever on the internet. Note: we. I however pop in throughout the day to ‘get stuff done’ and constantly find myself sucked out in currents. It’s not like I’m out to sea stranded…just momentarily adrift daydreaming usually. But adrift is not grounded and I often feel conflicted about this while simultaneously feeling like it’s keeping me somewhat more sane than without.
    But, I’ve decided that honestly, if i can’t control my use well (and we don’t have a tv), I’m going to be careful about how we approach it with our kids. One note from Grandma, photo from Auntie, e-card from a friend turns into this begging-for-more here. So, I’m very careful with what we do on the internet. No matter how much time we spend, it never feels like enough to them. Kind of like videos and TV (which they see on occasion).
    And truly, at this point in time, I just feel like little ones have no need or use for it. Creativity, imagination and freeplay are key to our growing and learning philosophy. I know I’ll let me kids enjoy the internet…soon…but first I feel like I’m doing them a favor by letting their development catch up with it all. I know they’ll still kick butt when I do give them access and eventually free reign.
    Also, listening to others talk about setting up controls sounds daunting. Geesh, where does one ever start with all of that?
    Well, thanks a million for a great post. And reminder. And focus. Cheers to your wonderful space here which I feel so lucky to have found.

  25. Sheryl permalink
    June 1, 2011 10:42 pm

    Great topic Rachel! Ella (6) told me one day that google means the same as infinity. I took a minute and thought- damn you are right sweet pea, it is the same, because the information is infinite. We skype our family in Denmark, watch movies on Netflix (like someone else said because we don’t have a tv for movies), and they too have discovered We love Sid the Science Kid, since there is only one on instant play on Netflix we googled it and then they saw that there were games- all kinds of them and they love it, but I do limit it. They beg for pbskids more than sugar! My husband also likes to look up animals and watch youtube videos with them about all kinds of random things. I get werided out by it sometimes, but as the world moves, I think they have to move with it or they will be lost to some of it. As long as they also know the other parts, (which your kids know so well) touching the soil, where their food really comes from, and how the natural world truly functions. I am horrified when I hear statistics of how much “face time” kids have with a computer or data device. A few weeks ago on npr, they said an “average” kid “averages” 6 hours a day on off school days being plugged in- now that’s just wrong. Maybe 6 hours per week sounds reasonable.


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