Creating a Family Culture of Tech Autonomy

January 9, 2019
father-daughter-phone

If we only teach our kids to follow a strict set of tech rules, then they’re likely to just pivot to another set of rules once they leave home. Chances are those rules will be an algorithm created by engineers like me.

by Bartek Geza, Google software engineer

I’ve been a computer engineer since I was six years old—at least that’s I what I managed to convince my parents when they brought home a PC and I became inseparable from it. About 20 years later, Google began paying me to do what I had already been doing for free because I was curious and creative.

To an outsider, I might easily have looked like a kid with too much computer time, but my parents knew me well enough to hope I was mostly on a focused path that I was carving out for myself. It was a trek that happened to involve a device—the kind of device that has many parents unnerved these days.

As a new father myself I’m not unsympathetic to the way they feel, but when I need to, I can still wear my other two hats. In addition to being a parent, I’m still a lifelong tech consumer and an engineer for a company that’s pretty dedicated to creativity and the future.

So I think about the future a lot, and the role my daughter—and technology—will play in it.

Devices are in your home and engaging your kids, and while your first instinct may be to hide the screens and set strict barriers around their use… that train has pretty much left the station. Your kids’ future has tech in it, and that’s not a terrible thing.

Think about the difference between the paper textbooks we grew up with and the digital coursework our kids now use in school—paper books are static and can’t be updated in real time as the world evolves. Which would you rather consult for facts these days: Wikipedia or a decades-old encyclopedia?

Likewise, ranking algorithms aren’t inherently bad either. Of course, they’re used to increase engagement, and that’s where you come in, by the way: to monitor the volume and type of engagement happening in your home. But ranking algorithms can also help customize material to what you already know and what you’re seeking—they foster efficiency and curiosity. A digital textbook can skip the parts you’ve already mastered and dive deeper into topics that uniquely interest you.

If you don’t like where engagement-driven algorithms have taken your kids thus far, then tell them so. You both need to understand the difference between escapism/passive consumption and productive curiosity. Help your kids set measurable goals for their tech usage so they don’t just end up somewhere. You want them to learn how to get to where they’re headed intentionally.

In the coming years, AI’s progress will only become stronger and more difficult to avoid. I want my daughter to meet that head-on, with her own goals firmly in place. These goals arise from a family culture that encourages autonomy. These goals are internally driven by her. If I imposed a bunch of rules and barriers on her, I’d likely just end up teaching her lawyering. In response, she’d then just look for loopholes if she’s driven, and, worse yet, if she’s not, she’d likely just eventually switch out one rulemaker for another.

We have only a few years to build a culture in our homes that empowers our kids to make wise choices before they’re free to make those choices without us.

A carpenter builds by following a blueprint and a gardener grows by planting seeds. When it comes to tech and our kids, pivoting from carpenter to gardener mode helps us foster early autonomy before we’re pushed out of the picture. Under COPPA parents have control over kids’ online privacy until the age of 13. That means we have only a few years to build a culture in our homes that empowers our kids to make wise choices before they’re free to make those choices without us.

I know families who swear by a strict code of conduct, written down as rules and consequences. I’m not against this, but I see it more as a primer for starting something more meaningful and engrained, or possibly as a safety net if you feel device usage has spun out of control. As long as you’re pointing your family toward increasing autonomy and self-regulation, then any tools you need to get there seem fine.

Every day the tools available to parents on devices are becoming more sophisticated and useful. Research for yourself what is currently at your disposal and put them to work in the earliest days so your kids become used to the age-appropriate safety bumpers. Let them know your expectations for usage and then reward them with increased freedom. Only you know what that pacing looks like for your individual kids, but the more responsibility you require of them, the more you’re likely to see.

The richer goal though is to help make kids aware of how to use tech ethically. Issues like anonymity, responsibility, honesty and intellectual property are all important, and tech has put them front-and-center in our kids’ lives much earlier than any of us had to grapple with them in our own childhoods.

As we prepare them for this I’d offer the same advice I’m giving myself:

1) Don’t be naïve about the technology. Our kids will take advantage of our ignorance.

2) Overcome our fear of the unknown because that will impact our communications with our kids; it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions when we act out of anxiety.

3) Understand tech’s limits and uses—because it already understands ours.

4) Don’t let tech take over your (or your child’s) brain. Understand the difference between creativity, consumption and addiction.

5) Mindfully build up your tech habits and family culture, teaching by example. Be mindful of your words, attitude and actions—your kids process them all.

In my own childhood, my parents lucked out with a kid who didn’t just pass time staring at a screen. To me, devices opened up a world I couldn’t have accessed otherwise and I quickly dived into kid-friendly HTML coding and building simple websites. What I had that a lot of young kids don’t was a sense of mastery over my device, a sense of ownership and, eventually, skill. That’s a fairly familiar story: do what you love and you’ll become good at it. Become good at it and someone is bound to start paying you to do it for them.

Increasingly understanding how computers work is like literacy. Just as a child develops the ability to understand intentions, beliefs, and emotions of others, a programmer learns to understand patterns in the digital minds of algorithms. Give your family this gift, to be able to mentally pierce the shiny shells of computers and learn the basics of how information is processed today.

But landing a job as a software engineer isn’t the only reason to be mindfully engaged with devices growing up. We teach our kids to start making intentional choices now because tech is increasingly becoming integrated into every part of their lives—an exciting future we want them prepared to meet head-on.

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