They call me an expert

Derek Finch, flickr.com, CC BY SA-2.0
Derek Finch, flickr.com, CC BY SA-2.0

“You’re a parent. With everything you know, how much do you limit your kids’ technology use?”

No matter how many times it gets asked of me, and it gets asked a lot, this is always a moment of sheer panic for me. I am in a beautiful ballroom at a resort in Sedona, Arizona, and have just finished giving a talk within my time limits a rapt audience who are asking interesting questions. And yet, I have a moment of blank. I look back at the audience. Dozens of faces stare at me wide-eyed.

These are some of the most successful people in southern California. They have flown two hours and then driven two more and then made a specific choice to hear me speak. They see me as an expert, and they want me to tell them what to do for their kids and grandkids. Much like the first moment I realized undergraduates were writing down what I was saying during the first class I taught, I have a moment of disbelief. “Really? You are listening to me?”

Before I tell you what I answered, let’s back up a little and tell you how I got there. I recently spent two amazing days in Sedona with around 100 campus leaders, CEOs who are connected with the university by hiring our students, advising on programs, commissioning research, and so on, along with their partners. The retreat featured talks in the mornings by campus leaders and faculty with casual activities in the afternoon, like hiking and mountain biking. This event allowed members of the university community to network, to share research results, and to build relationships.

Opposite my talk, another faculty member was laying out genomics and public health. No matter what anyone tells you, in this situation, most academics would rather hear the talk they are up against than give their own. I had a full room of eager listeners awaiting me, however, so onward I went, missing the talk I wanted to hear.

I was talking about child development and technology, no real surprise there for BOLD blog readers. And of course, I showed a lot of cool demos. My demos tend to make computer scientists ask me hard questions about scalability of the intervention, how exactly are we accomplishing the sensing, and what else we might be able to do with new hardware. What impact does room lighting have on your motion sensing? How often do users have to charge your devices? What happens to your machine learning algorithms when you drop data?

My results slides tend to make the behaviorists and psychologists in the room ponder mechanisms for the impact we see, ability of these approaches to generalize past the small samples we tend to be able to test, and the impact of dosage on outcomes. Just how much technology do we need to use to get effects? Is this realistic for interventions in practice? Why did or didn’t we use some particular theory that is en vogue (or out of vogue) at the moment?

These are the questions I am used to getting. Every so often, I get a question about whether our technology is available open source or for purchase. Academics never ask the dreaded question though. That question gets saved for talks I give outside of the academe, like this one.

“So much of parenting is just doing the best we can with what we can.”

And so, let us return to my moment of panic. Answering the question is hard for multiple reasons. Of course, there is the issue of my expertise and whether I really feel comfortable having it applied in this way. My mind starts to race imagining the cocktail party conversations or worse being invoked in the mommy wars on the playground or even within families.

There is also a part of me that feels shame, the same shame we all feel, that my parenting choices might not actually be the best in light of the research we know. So much of parenting is just doing the best we can with what we can. I began with cloth diapers and switched to paper once my kids started eating solid food. If you are a parent, you know why. If you aren’t, I will spare you the gory details.

So much of parenting is justifying our own choices after the fact. We seek out opinions that match our own and make us feel good. My PhD advisor once told me that parenting is like dieting, decide what you want to do and then go find the book that agrees with you.

So, what is my answer? You, the parents, probably know best. YES, YOU! You know your kids. I have one who could eat candy all day long with no real discernible impact on his attitude and behavior. I have one who sugar spikes and sugar crashes like nobody’s business.

“You, the parents, probably know best. YES, YOU!”

I know my own kids, and I know that their limits are different. If your kid has a hard time after thirty minutes of TV but can muck around on the iPad all day with no impact, set your limits accordingly. And, as my friend Julie Kientz, who has done some great work on tech and parenting, once said, if letting your kid watch TV makes you a better parent, go for it. If I want my kids fed, clothed, and out of the house without one or all of us in tears, our mornings include some Daniel Tiger. For others, this strategy would be a disaster.

So, I *might* be an expert. The BOLD Blog even claims I am one. Even so, don’t do what I would do. And don’t do what some other bloggers would do either. Do what you would do.

Julie A. Kientz et al.: Texting while Parenting: How Adults Use Mobile Phones while Caring for Children at the Playground

Julie A. Kientz et al.: Not at the Dinner Table: Parents’ and Children’s Perspectives on Family Technology Rules

Julie A. Kientz et al.: It wasn’t really about the Pokémon: Parents’ Perspectives on a Location-Based Mobile Game