Tag: children

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage

Thank you to Seneca for the quotation for today’s title, which sprang to mind after reading Rosie Spinks’ claim in Quartz that we’ve reached ‘peak influencer’.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

Thank goodness for that. The selfie-obsessed influencer brigade is an insidious effect of the neoliberalism that permeates western culture:

For the internet influencer, everything from their morning sun salutation to their coffee enema (really) is a potential money-making opportunity. Forget paying your dues, or working your way up—in fact, forget jobs. Work is life, and getting paid to live your best life is the ultimate aspiration.

[…]

“Selling out” is not just perfectly OK in the influencer economy—it’s the raison d’etre. Influencers generally do not have a craft or discipline to stay loyal to in the first place, and by definition their income comes from selling a version of themselves.

As Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, explains the problem isn’t necessarily with social networks. It’s that you care about them. Social networks flatten everything into a never-ending stream. That stream makes it very difficult to differentiate between gossip and (for example) extremely important things that are an existential threat to democratic institutions:

“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.”

It’s easier for me to say these days that our obsession with Twitter and Instagram is unhealthy. While I’ve never used Instagram (because it’s owned by Facebook) a decade ago I was spending hours each week on Twitter. My relationship with the service has changed as I’ve grown up and it has changed — especially after it became a publicly-traded company in 2013.

Twitter, in particular, now feels like a neverending soap opera similar to EastEnders. There’s always some outrage or drama running. Perhaps it’s better, as Catherine Price suggests in The New York Times, just to put down our smartphones?

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

Depending on how we use them, social networks can stoke the worst feelings in us: emotions such as jealousy, anger, and worry. This is not conducive to healthy outcomes, especially for children where stress has a direct correlation to the take-up of addictive substances, and to heart disease in later life.

I wonder how future generations will look back at this time period?


Also check out:

Cutting the Gordian knot of ‘screen time’

Let’s start this with an admission: my wife and I limit our children’s time on their tablets, and they’re only allowed on our games console at weekends. Nevertheless, I still maintain that wielding ‘screen time’ as a blunt instrument does more harm than good.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing on this subject, especially around social skills and interaction. Take a recent article in The Guardian, for example, where Peter Fonagy, who is a professor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Developmental Science at UCL, comments:

“My impression is that young people have less face-to-face contact with older people than they once used to. The socialising agent for a young person is another young person, and that’s not what the brain is designed for.

“It is designed for a young person to be socialised and supported in their development by an older person. Families have fewer meals together as people spend more time with friends on the internet. The digital is not so much the problem – it’s what the digital pushes out.”

I don’t disagree that we all need a balance here, but where’s the evidence? On balance, I spend more time with my children than my father spent with my sister and I, yet my wife, two children and me probably have fewer mealtimes sat down at a table together than I did with my parents and sister. Different isn’t always worse, and in our case it’s often due to their sporting commitments.

So I’d agree with Jordan Shapiro who writes that the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on screen time for kids isn’t particularly useful. He quotes several sources that dismiss the WHO’s recommendations:

Andrew Przybylski, the Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said: “The authors are overly optimistic when they conclude screen time and physical activity can be swapped on a 1:1 basis.” He added that, “the advice overly focuses on quantity of screen time and fails to consider the content and context of use. Both the American Academy of Pediatricians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health now emphasize that not all screen time is created equal.”

That being said, parents still need some guidance. As I’ve said before, my generation of parents are the first ones having to deal with all of this, so where do we turn for advice?

An article by Roja Heydarpour suggests three strategies, including one from Mimi Ito who I hold in the utmost respect for her work around Connected Learning:

“Just because [kids] may meet an unsavory person in the park, we don’t ban them from outdoor spaces,” said Mimi Ito, director of the Connected Learning Lab at University of California-Irvine, at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit on Thursday. After years of research, the mother of two college-age children said she thinks parents need to understand how important digital spaces are to children and adjust accordingly.

Taking away access to these spaces, she said, is taking away what kids perceive as a human right. Gaming is like the proverbial water cooler for many boys, she said. And for many girls, social media can bring access to friends and stave off social isolation. “We all have to learn how to regulate our media consumption,” Ito said. “The longer you delay kids being able to use those muscles, the longer you delay kids learning how to regulate.”

I feel a bit bad reading that, as we’ve recently banned my son from the game Fortnite, which we felt was taking over his life a little too much. It’s not forever, though, and he does have to find that balance between it having a place in his life and literally talking about it all of the freaking time.

One authoritative voice in the area is my friend and sometimes collaborator Ian O’Byrne, who, together with Kristen Hawley Turner, has created screentime.me which features a blog, podcast, and up-to-date research on the subject. Well worth checking out!


Also check out:

  • Teens ‘not damaged by screen time’, study finds (BBC Technology) — “The analysis is robust and suggests an overall population effect too small to warrant consideration as a public health problem. They also question the widely held belief that screens before bedtime are especially bad for mental health.”
  • Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good (The New York Times) — “The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.”
  • NHS sleep programme ‘life changing’ for 800 Sheffield children each year (The Guardian) — “Families struggling with children’s seriously disrupted sleep have seen major improvements by deploying consistent bedtimes, banning sugary drinks in the evening and removing toys and electronics from bedrooms.”

Individual steps to tackle climate change

Tomorrow, pupils at some schools in the UK will walk out and join protests around climate change. There are none in my local area of which I’m aware, but it has got me thinking of how I talk to my own children about this.

The above infographic was created by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas and is featured in an article about the most effective steps you can take as an individual to tackle climate change.

While these are all important steps (I honestly didn’t know quite how bad transatlantic flights are!) it’s important to bear in mind that industry and big business should bear the brunt here. What they can do dwarfs what we can do individually.

Still, it all counts. And we should get on it. Time’s running out.

Source: phys.org

Let’s (not) let children get bored again

Is boredom a good thing? Is there a direct link between having nothing to do and being creative? I’m not sure. Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times, certainly thinks so:

[B]oredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. And not as some kind of cruel Victorian conditioning, recommended because it’s awful and toughens you up. Despite the lesson most adults learned growing up — boredom is for boring people — boredom is useful. It’s good for you.

Paul doesn’t give any evidence beyond anecdote for boredom being ‘good for you’. She gives a post hoc argument stating that because someone’s creative life came after (what they remembered as) a childhood punctuated by boredom, the boredom must have caused the creativity.

I don’t think that’s true at all. You need space to be creative, but that space isn’t physical, it’s mental. You can carve it out in any situation, whether that’s while watching a TV programme or staring out of a window.

For me, the elephant in the room here is the art of parenting. Not a week goes by without the media beating up parents for not doing a good enough job. This is particularly true of the bizarre concept of ‘screentime’ (something that Ian O’Byrne and Kristen Turner are investigating as part of a new project).

In the article, Paul admits that previous generations ‘underparented’. However, in her article she creates a false dichotomy between that and ‘relentless’ modern helicopter parents. Where’s the happy medium that most of us inhabit?

Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said.

Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”

So parents who provide for their children by enrolling them in classes and activities to explore and develop their talents are somehow doing them a disservice? I don’t get it. Fair enough if they’re forcing them into those activities, but I don’t know too many parents who are doing that.

Ultimately, Paul and I have very different expectations and experiences of adult life. I don’t expect to be bored whether at work our out of it. There’s so much to do in the world, online and offline, that I don’t particularly get the fetishisation of boredom. To me, as soon as someone uses the word ‘realistic’, they’ve lost the argument:

But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.

This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.

No, perhaps we should make more engaging, and provide more than bullshit jobs. Perhaps we should seek out interesting things ourselves, so that our children do likewise?

Source: The New York Times

What do happy teenagers do?

This chart, via Psychology Today, is pretty unequivocal. It shows the activities correlated with happiness (green) and unhappiness (red) in American teenagers:

I discussed this with our eleven year-old son, who pretty much just nodded his head. I’m not sure he knew what to say, given that most of the things he enjoys doing in his free time are red on that chart!

Take a look at the bottom of the chart: Listening to music shows the strongest correlation with unhappiness. That may seem strange at first, but consider how most teens listen to music these days: On their phones, with earbuds firmly in place. Although listening to music is not screen time per se, it is a phone activity for the vast majority of teens. Teens who spend hours listening to music are often shutting out the world, effectively isolating themselves in a cocoon of sound.

This stuff isn’t rocket science, I guess:

There’s another way to look at this chart – with the exception of sleep, activities that usually involve being with other people are the most strongly correlated with happiness, and those that involve being alone are the most strongly correlated with unhappiness. That might be why listening to music, which most teens do alone, is linked to unhappiness, while going to music concerts, which is done with other people, is linked to happiness. It’s not the music that’s linked to unhappiness; it’s the way it’s enjoyed. There are a few gray areas here. Talking on a cell phone and using video chat are linked to less happiness – perhaps because talking on the phone, although social connection, is not as satisfying as actually being with others, or because they are a phone activities even though they are not, strictly speaking, screen time. Working, usually done with others, is a wash, perhaps because most of the jobs teens have are not particularly fulfilling.

I might pin this up in the house somewhere for future reference…

Source: Psychology Today

Why good parents have naughty children

This made me smile, then it made me think. Our children are offspring of a current teacher and a former teacher. What difference does our structure and rules make to their happiness?

This article from the ongoing Book of Life compares and contrasts two families. The first is what would generally be regarded as a ‘good’ family, where the children are well-behaved and interactions pleasant. However:

In Family One the so-called good child has inside them a whole range of emotions that they keep out of sight not because they want to but because they don’t feel they have the option to be tolerated as they really are. They feel they can’t let their parents see if they are angry or fed up or bored because it seems as if the parents have no inner resources to cope with their reality; they must repress their bodily, coarser, more volatile selves. Any criticism of a grown up is (they imagine) so wounding and devastating that it can’t be uttered.

The second family is the opposite, but:

In Family Two the so-called bad child knows that things are robust. They feel they can tell their mother she’s a useless idiot because they know in their hearts that she loves them and that they love her and that a bout of irritated rudeness won’t destroy that. They know their father won’t fall apart or take revenge for being mocked. The environment is warm and strong enough to absorb the child’s aggression, anger, dirtiness or disappointment.

As a parent, I’m torn between, on the one hand wanting my children to be a bit rebellious. But, on the other hand, it’s just really inconvenient when they are…

We should learn to see naughty children, a few chaotic scenes and occasional raised voices as belonging to health rather than delinquency – and conversely learn to fear small people who cause no trouble whatsoever. And, if we have occasional moments of happiness and well-being, we should feel especially grateful that there was almost certainly someone out there in the distant past who opted to look through the eyes of love at some deeply unreasonable and patently unpleasant behaviour from us.

Source: The Book of Life

Can you measure social and emotional skills?

Ben Williamson shines a light on the organisation behind the PISA testing regime moving into the realm of social and emotional skills:

The OECD itself has adopted ‘social and emotional skills,’ or ‘socio-emotional skills,’ in its own publications and projects. This choice is not just a minor issue of nomenclature. It also references how the OECD has established itself as an authoritative global organization focused specifically on cross-cutting, learnable skills and competencies with international, cross-cultural applicability and measurability rather than on country-specific subject achievement or locally-grounded policy agendas.

I really can’t stand this kind of stuff. Using proxies for the thing instead of trying to engender a more holistic form of education. It’s reductionist and instrumentalist.

This project exemplifies a form of stealth assessment whereby students are being assessed on criteria they know nothing about, and which rely on micro-analytics of their gestures across interfaces and keyboards. It appears likely that SSES, too, will involve correlating such process metadata with the OECD’s own SELS constructs to produce stealth assessments for quantifying student skills.

If you create data, people will use that data to judge students and rank them. Of course they will.

However, over time SSES could experience function creep. PISA testing has itself evolved considerably and gradually been taken up in more and more countries over different iterations of the test. The new PISA-based Test for Schools was produced in response to demand from schools. Organizations like CASEL are already lobbying hard for social-emotional learning to be used as an accountability measure in US education—and has produced a State-Scan Scorecard to assess each of the 50 states on SEL goals and standards. Even if the OECD resists ranking and comparing countries by SELS, national governments and the media are likely to interpret the data comparatively anyway.

This is not a positive development.

Source: Code Acts in Education