As adults, we tend to project our fears backward onto children. But the tendency to view everything new as a mortal threat not only leads to bad laws—it makes life pretty lame for kids and grown-ups alike.
Rather than letting fear control his family, Jordan Shapiro is trying to buck the trend. His recent book, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World (Little, Brown Spark), is unlike virtually any other book about kids and video games. A psychologist who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, Shapiro is upbeat about the many ways new technology is transforming childhood.
"We want to make sure we all come together as a community, because that's better for all of us," he says. The question is: "How do we teach our kids to use these tools to do that?" Shapiro spoke to Reason's Nick Gillespie about his unorthodox child-rearing philosophy in February.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish with your book?
A: The main thing I'm trying to accomplish is to give parents a way of understanding the time that our kids are living in. We live in a connected world. These technologies are not going anywhere. But in our panic over kids and tech, we're failing to inject old values into those new things.
Q: You're 41 and your kids are 11 and 13, and you play video games with them. What has that taught you?
A: Well, first, I'll be honest. I don't game that much with my kids anymore, because they're too good at it and they don't like it when I play. I still spend a lot of time watching them play and talking to them about what they're doing. But it did start with us gaming together. We had a Nintendo Wii, and playing it allowed us to have so many different kinds of conversations. The language of the game started to inform conversations about other things. I would use examples like, "You need a power up to do better at school." Those kinds of silly metaphors that work with little kids.
Q: In the book, you refer to Minecraft, which is an online game with players all over the world, as a "global play date" and a "sandbox." Talk about what you mean by that.
A: We live in a global world, right? And kids need practice building the social skills to work with people in a global world, right? This is where the sandbox part comes in.
When I was a kid, you practiced those skills in a sandbox. You learned not to take the other person's shovel, not to knock over their castle. All kinds of important skills are getting developed while you're playing. We need a place where kids can develop those skills in a global way and also in a digital way, because the way we interact in this globalized world is through these digital tools.
I'm not saying the internet and games can replace the sandbox. I'm saying in addition to a real sandbox, kids also need a digital sandbox that allows for a global kind of learning and interaction and practice.
Q: People point to increasing diagnoses of depression and anxiety among younger people. Is there something to the idea that social media is the cause?
A: That's a really complicated question. The trend started before we had social media, and we don't know yet whether social media has made a difference. I'm not going to argue one way or the other until we have more data.
To your point, I think social media can be terrible. But part of the problem is we haven't really taught kids how to live meaningfully in a place with social media. We tend to think we should not let kids use social media until they're older, but that scares me a whole lot. My kid wanted to be just like me, but now that he's a teenager, he suddenly wants to figure things out for himself. I find it really bizarre that we think that's the time to hand someone a new technology. I would rather do it in the beginning, when they want to follow all of my rules.