Monday, June 21, 2010

Looking at the Positives -- Is Media-Rationing Parenting Necessarily A Good Thing?

This morning I was reading an article by John Creighton at the Washington Times online edition in their Communities section. It's an interesting article that is worth the read just for its positive perspective on the purposeful use of technology in our lives. After reading, I began to think about how we view media technology in our culture. Some will argue that the amount of time you or your child spend in front of a screen directly impacts their cognitive abilities and overall health. Most will argue that if a child spends an excessive amount of time in front of a screen (or using media related technology) that there will be a negative impact. However, if you look at the current trends in toy development and institutional learning strategies, you will notice that the use of technology (TV, computer, I-pods, etc.) is on the rise.

So, one camp will tell you get away from those gadgets and get back out into nature, your community, your interactive human world. And, another camp will tell you that increasing the availability of technology has a positive impact on learning, peaks the learner's interest and creatively brings skills to the learner that before would have made them disinterested on the pages of a book.

My quest is always for moderation. Finding the golden mean amongst the many tempting moments of idle time is a challenge. Using media to the benefit of the consumer is the objective. How does one do this wisely, especially in relation to raising children who must be taught to use it for it's best purposes? First, one must identify some specific benefits of media use. In my opinion, there are three ways that we can utilize media sensibly in our lives:

1. Engage -- Media can be used to expand the mind. There are so many products, websites, interactive learning opportunities out there. Even TV programming is offering more self-help and knowledge-based options beyond the children's show typical in years past. CD's for learning foreign languages, higher-learning via distance education -- a variety of possibilities to expand one's mind are all available via media outlets.

2. Entertain -- it's okay to use media as a source of entertainment. However, when its use is excessive, there is a problem. No one should be sitting in front of a screen all day watching nonsense. This is the place where limiting screen time is appropriate -- kick the kids and/or yourself out of the house to do some physical activity. A healthy body also promotes a healthy mind.

3. Employ -- Media is a medium of communication. In the past, its function was mostly to give, to impart information or entertainment, today it is interactive; media can give and can receive. You can hold a conversation on the internet; access you messages on email or voice mail via your cell phone, etc. Technology isn't stationery any longer -- it can be with us constantly. Use it to its best advantage. This blog, for instance, is a means to share God and the life of faith through the Catholic Church with others.

Realize that these three benefits available through media use are not all encompassing. Media has a very important place in our lives, but like anything else, when it is abused it turns into a tool of sin and corruption. However, Creighton makes a very wise observation. This phenomenon is not going away -- technology is increasing in our lives, not decreasing.

Creighton posits this:
First, when we need solutions of for nagging problems the best thing to do is set aside our current practices and procedures. Our institutional habits may be what’s blinding us from seeing new possibilities. Second, when we see something we consider “bad” — kids texting too much or walking around with earbuds — we need to reframe our typical knee jerk response. Don’t ask, “How can we prohibit or limit this behavior?” Instead ask, “What opportunities do these behaviors create?”
I think he's right. Creighton bases his assertions on research he has done personally, but also on a talk given by Clay Shirky regarding what he calls, "congnative surplus" (the video of Shirky's talk is linked in Creighton's piece) -- a condition in society that is a result of new found free time. He suggests that the use of media is moving from passive viewing to active participation. The fear of this new trend is lifting and more and more people are participating or being encouraged to participate.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to track with this thinking, as well. In his address to priests at the 44th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI said this:
The spread of multimedia communications and its rich “menu of options” might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled. Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.

He has written encouraging the lay faithful to make full use of this medium to spread the Gospel, as well -- in particular to the young faithful audiences. It is time well spent, time not wasted, time of prayer and commitment to Christ. Last year at the 43rd Communications Day, Pope Benedict offered this:
In the early life of the Church, the great Apostles and their disciples brought the Good News of Jesus to the Greek and Roman world. Just as, at that time, a fruitful evangelization required that careful attention be given to understanding the culture and customs of those pagan peoples so that the truth of the gospel would touch their hearts and minds, so also today, the proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately. It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this "digital continent". Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm.

As a culture, we are starting to step outside of our fear of the internet and look to ways of using this resources wisely. Yes, there is plenty to be wary of in terms of content, but if used properly and for good, the Gospel can be spread around the globe, minds can be enriched, people can share and develop relationships, all on a computer screen. And, as Creighton and Shirky both point out, there is much potential good to be harnessed in this digital age. It's all a matter of perspective.

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