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The Uninvited Guest – Technology in the Home by Jenny Heslop

Take from Barefoot Magazine Spring 2009 issue

There are always going to be ‘big’ issues to worry about as technology advances; the Y2K bug, Big Brother, identification cards, secret spy satellites, Google Maps. My worry is not about these big things. It’s about the smaller things fading away: finding joy in a sunset; the excitement of a zoo visit; receiving a letter in the post; taking a risk instead of a safe option; entertaining ourselves; getting lost in our senses of touch, smell and imagination—not just sight and hearing; and spending time with friends face to face, not on facebook.

When pay T.V. was being introduced, I opened my mother’s door one day to a salesman. When I could get a word in edgeways I informed him there was no television in the house, so pay TV would not be of any benefit. I could tell, in the stunned silence that followed, that he didn’t believe me. His eyes flicked to the roof to check for an aerial. Then, he left: there was no sale to be had.

We have television at our house and it is a constant battle to find a balance between what’s acceptable viewing and what is not. Our son loves football. We have settled on him being allowed to watch two matches a week. Our younger daughter finds football boring and we won’t allow her the equivalent amount of time in programs she enjoys. This decision is based on age as much as on content. She finds this grossly unfair. She has to make do with Playschool on Fridays and we have to live with the complaints.

Everything on the television is larger than life. For example, television news is so much more intrusive and graphic than news on the radio or in newspapers; visual images pack a heftier punch than the spoken or written word. It is entertainment. The lack of effort required is what draws children, and us, in. But the moving window on the world can influence a child’s development and may send messages about lifestyles and behaviour that do not necessarily reflect our own personal behaviours. This can be confusing for a child.

Television can be an easy way to tune out, to empty the mind and escape. It can be informative and is a fast, convenient avenue of communication. But it can also be a time-waster, babysitter or procrastination tool very easily. Theoretically, I could live without it, but I don’t want to. I love to be entertained.

Similarly, I can’t imagine my life without the computer. As a word processor and research tool it gets used most days. As a communication tool, through email, it gets used most days. And as a time-waster, time-filler, procrastinator and entertainer, it gets used every day.

How many of us boot up the computer, shut the door, and expect the family to fend for itself while we get a bit of work done? Only to emerge from a fog of blogs, facebook pages and weblinks, hours later with the work still not started let alone finished. Or is that just me?

Some of us have the luxury of working from home, or have partners who work from home either full-time or part-time. This is a great step towards family and work balance. My partner can bring up his work desktop at home with the touch of a couple of buttons and get a few extra hours of work done. But here lies another problem. Those working hours creep up, and can start spilling over into the weekend. Even though the reduced time spent in the work place may provide a better balance with family life, the hours spent closed off on the computer can tip the scales. People who would not work until midnight, even with decent overtime pay, will think nothing of coming home, spending an hour with the family over dinner and then sitting at the computer until midnight doing their projects. Occasionally, this is an acceptable trade off, but if it is a regular occurrence, it may not be.

Mobile phones raise similar issues. You only need to have the car break down once on a busy road in the rain, with two small children, to appreciate the value of a mobile phone. They allow you to get on with things instead of waiting around for a call to come through. Last minute arrangements and re-arrangements are less stressful. They increase the viability of a mobile office. There is nothing more intrusive, however, than a business call in the middle of a family day out, a holiday, or a Sunday morning breakfast. Not to mention an SMS conversation that carries on through dinner, or the constant ‘beep, beep’ of a sporting score coming through.

Do we need to be contactable twenty four hours a day? Is it reasonable to expect people to be available whenever we wish to contact them? Can we not switch off? All this new technology can enable us to work faster, more efficiently, conveniently and remotely. But don’t we need time away, time to wind down and block out that extra stimulus, extra stress?

Do all these labour saving technological devices decrease our workload and stress? Individually and used in balance, they probably do. But their addictive nature and their entertainment value can make it difficult to recognise that healthy balance and stick to it.

Children learn by watching us. Should we be showing our children how to find all these short cuts? Or should we show them what it is to hang washing on the line on a warm, windy autumn morning rather than using the clothes dryer? The adrenalin rush as you race the elements to get them off the line before the clouds burst. The pure satisfaction of making it inside with a basket of fresh smelling clothes just as the tattoo of rain beats down on the roof. Sure, it’s quicker and easier to use the dryer, but do we always need to? Are we teaching our children to expect instant gratification responses?

Given that computers and other technologies are built to be user friendly why can’t we assume that our children will pick up these skills quickly and easily later in life?

Choice, balance and control are part of my answer. We need to make our own informed decisions about which parts of technology we choose to invite into our life. It may be argued that we can’t take the good without the bad, but on a small scale, within the family, why not? Why can’t I choose to have a computer to make my life easier and more enjoyable, to make my communications simpler, and yet not expose my young children to the world of computer games and websurfing?

For me, it comes down to priorities and resolve. What is the tradeoff, and am I prepared to live with that? Where is my own personal line in the sand?

It is possible to control technology use, and not let it control you.

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