Raise Creators of Technology, Not Just Consumers

The lonely creator. From Moby's recent video criticizing our obsession with Smartphones.

Once upon a time, children played outside, at parks, in the neighborhood and in the schoolyard. I know, seems like a fantasy from some twentieth century dream, but they honestly did play, lots of them, screaming, yelling, falling down, running and laughing. Yes, they got hurt, but they slept well. 

Evidence of 20th Century children playing

There was a time when children slept? I swear to you it's true. They went to bed after a hot bath and a good story and slept till the sun came up. Sometimes nine hours.

This of course, is a legend, almost a myth, from a time before the Smartphone. In 2001, the year my second son was born, the iPod was invented. It was pretty cool, but storing 10,000 songs on one small device wouldn’t be the game changer here. Six years later, the iPod grew into the iPhone, and this invention would disrupt the life of the child more dramatically than anything else since the invention of electricity.

Kids these days?
There are plenty of articles written about the issues that can arise when kids and technology mix. One of the best articles I’ve ever read is a Medium article titled, "Porn is Not the Worst Thing on Musical.ly" by Anastasia Bell. A must read for all people with kids. With over 22K claps, it appears she really hit the nail on the head. The data is still out, but the rise in pre-teen suicide, FOMO anxiety, and self-harm have all been linked to a blend of too much time online and lack of sleep that comes with screen time. Put a kid to bed with his iPad rather than a hot bath and a story, and he’s very likely to Snap or play games till the wee hours, only to be awakened to go to school, whether he likes it or not. Adolescents and children are vulnerable to everything they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. This is because their sensory experience of the world is literally nature's way of programming their brains. The way they think as adults will be determined by their experiences during this critical time of brain development.

However, there’s one aspect about kids and technology that doesn’t quite get as much attention—the consumerist nature of the culture they are literally immersing themselves in. Our world is less safe when too many of our kids are in mental agony, the increase in suicide, self-harm and mass shootings point to this. Yet our world is even more dangerous when too few of them are unplugged for another reason as well—as our minds consume more and more ideas from others, fewer of us are actually creating anything ourselves. 

We may think watching an arts and crafts channel on YouTube is creative, but if you never make the craft and just watch others do it, then nothing has happened at all. If the online community is more about logging in and letting others do the thinking for us than it is about sharing ideas back and forth within creative groups, with time there will be fewer and fewer content creators, and those few will be the ones with the real power.

It’s important that a healthy percentage of the next generation unplugs and creates, otherwise the world will become one big YouTube unboxing episode, and do we really want our creative capacity as a species to devolve in such a way?

The job of parenting is to create a nurturing space for our children to mature so that one day they can join us in the work of the world. To make civilization, we need creators, not just consumers. This used to be a natural part of growing up—the kids played, built things, did their chores and imitated the adults around them. In this technological age, parents now have to be conscious of the online world their children are so drawn to, and step-in, so to speak. Not only to save their childhood, but to also teach them about the real power of technology. For those who know how this network is built and can create new content in the Information Age will shape the future for us all.

So how do we do this? There are plenty of books and TED Talks on this subject, but honestly, the method for raising creators is fairly simple—delay the introduction of personal technological devices until they’re old enough to drive, play with them until then and make learning about technology a family affair.

Let’s break these three things down.

Delay Personal Devices (i.e. gaming systems, computers and Smartphones) Till the Kid Can Drive

I’m sure most people think this is counter-intuitive, this is after all an article on how to raise content creators in the 21st century yet my first suggestion is to become Amish? However the fact is plain and simple, the moment you put your iPhone in your children’s hands, you have lost them to the content already created by someone else online. Some of this content is inspiring, but most of this endless data stream is blather and unworthy for most adult human beings, much less our children. I’m not kidding here. Perhaps if we'd listened to the Buddha and trained our minds in the practice of right thought, things would be different. Even if you set your children’s accounts to private, they’re still online, CONSUMING EVERY BYTE of information that any old person throws out there. Ms. Basil says this best:

"Pretend you can turn your kid invisible. Pretend you drop your invisible kid off at a warehouse in downtown LA. You have no idea who’s inside — fingers crossed it’s packed with Nobel Peace Prize winners, board certified pediatricians, and J.K. Rowling. Pray it is not packed with the worst of humanity. No one can see your kid, but your kid can see everyone and hear everything.
Would you do it?

Of course you wouldn’t. Most parents are careful about who and what their child is exposed to. Setting your child’s account to private may make him invisible, but he’s still there, fully present, taking it all in."

She goes on to suggest the #16by16 plan, where you tell your kid that if they can make it without a smartphone and computer in their room till their 16, you’ll pay them $1600. It’s not a crazy idea. My own sons were 15 when they got computers, 16 and 18 respectively when they got their first Smartphones. They survived without and I didn't even have to pay them. 

Delaying the technology forced them to wire-up their minds to the world around them BEFORE they linked up to the hive-mind of the internet. During this time, they learned to play with others, manage their time and institute good study habits. How in the world did I keep them entertained? It’s not really my job to entertain them, it’s my job to love them, feed them and drive them to school. Just as they’re not responsible for my happiness, I’m not responsible for their entertainment. However, there were a few things I did to make their lives enjoyable without electronics…

Play With Your Kids

Ms. Basil suggests that, “Kids should be watching witty cartoons, riding bikes, making slime, doing art, playing Minecraft, learning chess, and boring us with bad magic tricks. They shouldn’t be stopping other kids from killing themselves.”

Childhood is about play!!!! And Ms. Basil’s suggestions are exactly the things we can do with our kids. Make slime and playdough, ride bikes and learn bad magic tricks. Teach them to juggle or ride a unicycle. What are you good at? Can you tumble? Then buy a mat and give them that skill. Can you build structures? Then get them at your side while you build a shed. Can you knit, or write, or put on a good puppet show? Essentially play to your strengths and invite the other adults in your lives to do the same. What our kids learn from their grandparents is precious, and the children will cling to those memories of learning from grandma as the elders pass away.

Kids also need to play with each other, even if it gets rough sometimes. But small kids love nothing more than being with you, so read books together, build blocks and Lego sets together, and play board games. This is fun and all of them build social as well as problem solving skills. Family dinners are also wonderful when no Smartphones are at the table. Want to go out to dinner but you have a two year old? Leave them at home with a sitter. Wait till they're four, then bring them to the nicest restaurants and start teaching them manners. But don't put the phone in their hands so you can have a moment to talk as adults. You have a lifetime to be with adults and you will regret it when they're teens and refuse to talk to you, because that's going to happen no matter what. But when they're small, they're open to learning to communicate and want nothing more than to tell you their latest knock-knock joke at the dinner table. Give them a phone instead of your attention and you miss the best chance you have for building a line of communication between you.

I mentioned that our kids learn by imitating us, so this means that in order to play with them in this way, we too have to be unplugged. I myself didn’t get a Smartphone until the eldest was 16 and they never used it. I did however share my computer with them because while it’s important to build up their minds and bodies spatially and through their experiences in the real world, there does come a time where kids need to learn what exactly makes the Information Age tick…

Make Learning About Technology a Family Affair

My father was a geek who spent a lot of time in his office either on his Ham Radio or building electronic Heathkits. One day when I was about ten, I wandered in from playing with the kids, tired and sweaty and looking for a break from the summer heat. I found him soldering together a bunch of electronic parts. I asked what it was and he told me he was building a binary clock. For work? I asked. No. For fun.


I asked him to show me how and by dinner I had not only built my first computer, I’d also learned to count in 1’s and 0’s. It was thrilling and from that day on, my father did everything he could to share technology with me. No, he didn’t run out and get me an Atari. Instead he gave me a TI-99 and I taught myself to code in Basic and thus began a life-long interest in computers and how they worked.

My totally adorable first computer. I still have it, in case the Smithsonian calls.

And note, this wasn't a computer in my room. I had to hook it up to the family TV in the living room and only got to use it in a public place. This meant I could easily ask for help, because Dad would often walk by and ask me what I was doing.

I think it’s important for everyone to know how information systems work. From coding to network protocols to the hardware behind the gadget in your hands, we all need to ask, How? So don’t be reluctant to teach your kids how to program if you don’t know how. It’s never too late, so start yourself!

Play Minecraft with them. Don’t plug them in without you, sit with them, build worlds with them, maybe even build modpacks with them. There are a few cute visual programming languages like Scratch. Instead of giving them an iPad, get an Arduino Lego project going. Take them to a Maker Faire. Build their first computer with them. Please don’t think of these activities as only for those who are “smart” or “geeks.” In this century, we’ve got to know how to make our kids tech savvy, so that means we should learn it as well. The more informed our citizenry is about the network that now governs the very political discourse of our democracy and controls the Electoral College, the better.

Most of All, Be Worthy of Imitation

Is this what we want to share with our children?

The most powerful thing you can do as a parent when it comes to raising a creator is to become a creator yourself. So close the Facebook app and make your own chatbot. Look up from your phone and instead look at what’s under the hood. It’s a powerful world inside of there, trust me.

Go on, take a peek. Then share what you've discovered with your kids.