- Rebecca Padnos Altamirano on the effects of screen time in early childhood development.
Originally published in De Groene Amsterdammer in Dutch. This magazine from The Netherlands, is the equivalent of The New Yorker in America for those unfamiliar with the publication.
Laila Frank, from the famous Dutch Magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, interviewed our family for her article on the shortcomings of technology in early childhood education. Laila read my Huffington Post article, Raising Low Tech Kids in Silicon Valley, and she wanted to see how it was implemented at home in Silicon Valley.
Laila’s main goal was to observe and report a typical day in our lives. A few months before, N.P.O., the Dutch parent company equivalent to PBS, featured us in an editorial piece on Silicon Valley’s culture and the addictive nature of social media. Laila visited a Bay Area Waldorf School, 1440 multiversity, and interviewed cultural psychologist Richard Freed. Laila spent a typical Sunday afternoon with our family. She accompanied my 2-year-old daughter and me to Bing Nursery School to observe Bing’s teaching philosophy.
Not everyone can afford a child at Waldorf, not even in Silicon Valley. The digital gap is also a financial gap. Technology-poor education is the only alternative for those who lack the $25,000 to $35,000 fee. «Creativity and ingenuity were once the power of Silicon Valley. But how technology is being designed and used these days is killing the soul of the Valley.
It is a misconception that creativity is created through technology. Only when you understand how the technology works can you genuinely create. Now everything is pre-chewed. Take applications that you can use to build websites, for example, they make you seem creative. But users have no clue how the building blocks work. They are helpless if something does not go how it was fed to them.
Twins Isaac and Ethan (10), Eli (8), and Ayla (2) give a tour of their house. «We don’t have a screen in the living room or in our bedroom,» says Isaac. «Come, I’ll show you the garden, we designed it ourselves.» The difference in height between the terrace and the garden is bridged by a winding exit. Another design from the boys. «We can run down with our karts,» Ethan explains.
«Sometimes they just get bored. That is also a life lesson, it is not bad to be bored.»
We enter the ‘laboratory,’ formerly known as the family garage, transformed into the children’s sanctuary, a playground for their imagination. This is where they play and discover or do their homework. The centerpieces are an electronic drum set and a keyboard on a colorful carpet. A play rope dangles from the ceiling downwards. A desk for every kid against the wall plastered with drawings. It is the only place in the house that does have two screens. They are only used when needed for school.
The couple – who runs a technology company together – talk about their choice at the round dinner table full of healthy and local snacks.
«We participated in the early years of Silicon Valley. The twins tested mobile apps at the age of three. We thought it was cool at the time. We even posted messages about it on Facebook. Our boys were born prematurely which meant hours spent in waiting rooms and iPhones served as a distraction. We relied heavily on screens.»
Everything changed when the boys no longer needed medical care. Every time the television had to be turned off, it turned into a conflict. I also noticed they were grumpy and annoying, to be honest, whenever they used technology. I was sick of it. When Antonio went on a trip for work, I went for it. Within two weeks, it was done. It is hard work to give children new experiences time and time again, but it also makes our lives easier. They all have their specialty in the kitchen – I taught them that. So while I read and Rebecca is at a yoga class, they make breakfast on the weekend. We go hiking a lot: it’s cheap and healthy. Sometimes they get bored. That is also a life lesson, it is not harmful to be bored now and then.
«So nowadays it’s an experiment to educate your children low or no-tech,» child psychologist Richard Freed responds when I tell him about the Padnos- Altamirano family. «Not only do you need the same level of knowledge as parents in Silicon Valley do, but you must also find the time and space to apply the experiment. Parents of children I treat (red: Freed has a practice in Antioch, CA) typically don’t have a job – or two – with flexible working hours. And if they do send their children outside, chances are that they will catch a bullet. That, too is the digital divide.»
«Choice is a luxury, «thus state teachers and authors of the book Screen Schooled, two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber» Joe Clement and Matt Miles. «The small classes at Waldorf are fantastic, but teachers cost money. We were recently at a Rocketship Schools conference, a group of public schools that rely heavily on technology. Their ideal is a factory model of a classroom: children sit behind a screen, and unqualified, low-paid temporary workers supervise. That’s what they call «personalized education.» ‘But personalized education requires a thorough understanding of what a child needs. It means explaining something in a different way – 10 times if you have to – until a child understands. Personalized education is not playing the same instruction on a screen repeatedly.»
The digital divide reinforces Rebecca and Antonio in their upbringing: the next technological wave demands the ability to communicate with other countries, cultures, and classes, Antonio believes.
«You have to understand how technology affects not only the elite but all layers of society. I hope we prepare our children for that.»
There is no doubt that children are going to use technology. Ethan wants a job in the tech sector. But technology must be helpful: «A tool, not a toy,» Isaac frames it. That means that, at times, the children don’t see a screen for months. But when the family travels by plane, it’s screen time without limits. Homework assignments are done online if required. Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant is part of the family household. She adds something to the family, she doesn’t take anything away. She remains silent for a moment. We can afford this choice, but not everybody can. I don’t want to judge. I think that’s important to say.