Q: My 11-year-old son spends every free minute in front of his computer—doing homework (he really does, thank goodness), social networking, playing games, and now creating his own games. Concerned that, one by one, he has dropped sports, playing with friends, getting outdoors, and, frankly, spending time with the family, I have struggled (and been stalemated) for years trying to get him out from behind the screen. He came home from school with a news article provided by his teacher about a 17-year-old boy in England who just sold an app he developed for $30 million. Now I am wondering—are my efforts to get him away from the computer not only futile, but limiting his chances for success in today’s economy?
Apprehensive about Apps, Ontario, Canada
A: Many parents already believe that their children need media early and often so that they will be prepared to compete in the adult world. That means parents are putting kids in front of screens from an early age, having toddlers and babies use lapware, tablet apps, smartphone games, and other forms of screen-based “edutainment” that often have little real educational value and, in some cases, may be developmentally detrimental.
It is important to remember that the reason a 17-year-old boy developing an app and selling it to a prominent company is news is because it is such a rare event. We need to understand that while there are kids with brilliant ideas and skills, these children have often spent many hours honing and developing these skills, sacrificing other activities in the process. While some may look at this early dedication as a career route, it is similar to becoming a professional athlete or musician: It requires a strict focus, innate skills, hours of practice, and sacrifice of other activities (primarily social). And after all of that, for every child who is able to successfully achieve professional status, there are thousands who will not.
My advice is for you to continue what you are doing—in addition to having some time when he’s on the computer, provide a rich and diverse experiential landscape for your son where he has the choice of many different activities (not just on a computer). Limit his screen time and give him options for other activities. If he isn’t into sports, maybe a book club, art classes, or free time outdoors will interest him. Many children join clubs, sports teams, and other organized activities for the social exposure, not necessarily for the activity itself.
Remember that children are natural generalists, not specialists. It is important for them to be able to sample a broad menu of life and to follow their hearts and minds to find what they are most passionate about. Providing your son with a landscape of diverse experiences and opportunities and seeing where he naturally gravitates will help you raise a child who is as happy, social, and productive as possible—it would be a shame to create a rich but unhappy coder at the cost of losing a brilliant and happy person because he focused his energy so narrowly so early.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,