Rachel Dretzin is a mom of three and the director, producer and correspondent for the upcoming PBS “FRONTLINE” documentary, “Digital Nation.” Parenting.com asked her to share her thoughts on technology and how it fits into families' lives today. Check out the documentary when it airs on your local PBS station Tuesday, February 2 (check local listings for time).
Because I've spent the last three years making documentaries for PBS "FRONTLINE" about life in the digital age, I'm asked all the time what rules I have for my own three children when it comes to the internet.
The answer is... not many.
The more I look for answers about what we actually know about the effects of the online world on kids, the more I realize that we know virtually nothing. We're at the very beginning of a gigantic social revolution that is transforming our minds, our hearts, and our families... and science hasn't caught up yet. We don't know how the internet is affecting our brains, or how much time online is too much time, or whether gaming is good or bad, or whether reading printed books will turn out to be essential in the 21st century. The answers just aren't out there, and anyone who tells you that they are is lying.
Even the things that the so-called experts tell you to worry about as a parent are constantly changing. Three years ago, when I first started reporting this story, everyone was worried about predators. Kids unwittingly putting their personal information online, only to be snatched by stalkers who'd been tracking them for months. Kids lured into meeting a stranger who they've been duped into thinking is their age. Kids falling in love with a virtual friend who turns out not to be a friend at all.
But these days, most people tracking these things agree that predator danger has been vastly exaggerated. Now we worry more about other things: about cyberbullying, about our kids posting something on Facebook that will come back to haunt them, or about them playing so many hours of a video game that the rest of their life begins to fall apart.
In the course of making my latest FRONTLINE documentary, "Digital Nation," I've spoken to college professors who bemoan their students' habit of facebooking and googling during lectures. They talk about kids whose papers are constructed as a series of unrelated paragraphs that don't have much to do with each other, because the kids got distracted while writing them. I've met young people who have more of a life in the virtual world than in the real one, and a 83-year-old woman who gained a new lease on life by creating an online cooking show. I've been amazed by what the digital world can give us, and terrified by what it's capable of taking away.
Most importantly, I've watched these issues play out in my own life and the lives of my children. It's getting harder to pay singular attention to each other, harder to switch off that buzz in our brains telling us to "check in" with our digital technology, whether it be phone or laptop or ipod. It's getting harder to do one thing at a time when you have the option of doing eight. And it's really hard to see the value of just being still.
I don't want my kids to grow up in a world where there's no time to push the pause button and reflect. And as a member of one of the last generations that remembers what life was like before digital technology, I see it as my duty to teach them the value of a certain kind of attention.
So instead of placing a bunch of arbitrary rules on my children's use of technology, I talk to them. I talk to them about my own struggles to manage my relationship with my iphone and my laptop. I talk to them about my fears, but I don't conceal the excitement I feel about all that technology is bringing to their lives.
Over the past year, we've posted clips and interviews on our website (www.pbsdigitalnation.org), and welcomed your contributions and feedback. Now, this coming Tuesday, February 2nd, we're broadcasting the Digital Nation documentary on PBS. I'll consider the film a success if people turn off the television after it's done and argue with each other for an hour, or if they feel compelled to come online and share their opinions. After you watch next week, please come to the site and let us know your thoughts, or, your own experiences with digital life, by sharing a video or joining a roundtable discussion.