The Challenge of Technology and Boys

Dear Readers,

After receiving an interesting letter from a concerned parent, I turned the question out to a number of colleagues. If you have a son and are concerned about his use of technology, you might enjoy this:

Dear Jim,

When time permits, would love to read your opinion of and advice for the phenomenon expressed on the cover of the most recent issue of the New Yorker, October 18.

This is our house, our library, our son.  Please help.

— A concerned parent


Welcome to the “brave new world.”   The irony is that too many of our kids won’t get the literary reference that I just made, since fewer and fewer read books. In most cases, it’s especially true in families where the adults don’t read books, because it used to be that kids picked up the reading habit from their parents, and then got hooked on books and read after “lights out” as much as they could.

At least that’s what I did. As usual, the New Yorker cartoonist got it just right: now kids even in homes where adults read and surround kids with books, the new media is so intoxicating, that books pale in comparison.  Here’s the good news: it may be that gaming online, simulations as teaching tools, and all the conversion of books and magazines to digital means will all converge, and kids will be reading all the time once again, only on their iPads instead of from their paperbacks.

So if they don’t read Jane Austen and Aldous Huxley on their own, as we may have, more the purpose of schools like ours where the canon continues to be taught.

Jim again: I wonder, though, if this is something we should talk through with the Parents’ Network? We are all struggling with it…


It’s very kind of you to consult a wise man on my behalf on this topic. That’s what I did when I wrote you. I am afraid, however, that I’m not persuaded by the writer’s central thesis: “Gaming online, simulations as teaching tools and conversion of books to digital means will converge and kids will be reading all the time once again.”

My observation is that online gaming, for example, is displacing reading as a leisure pursuit because gaming is so much more stimulating and takes less intellectual effort than the concentration required to read what used to be called an “improving” book. Live gaming allows friends to chat together in real time as they are playing so that there is the illusion of hanging out together in person! It is bizarre and incredibly popular.

As for the digitization of books, I have no objection to anything being read on an iPad, for example, (I’m a big fan) but if you’re not a reader, the novelty of reading in that form will pass quickly and you’ll just end up using your iPad as a laptop to surf the internet and play games.

So the question becomes how do we encourage our boys to become life long readers in the face of all this distracting, time-consuming, readily available technology?

For the last three years that my son has gone to summer camp, he has said that the best time of day is the “quiet time” after lunch when the boys spend two hours in their cabins relaxing. He reads. He reads because there is no internet to surf and no friends to chat with by cell while at camp.

This summer, he badly broke his foot while we were on holiday abroad. He had to have emergency surgery and spend three nights in the Children’s Hospital there. (He’s fine now, thanks.)  By the second day after surgery, with no internet or cell service and only Italian TV, he dug through his backpack and found the copy of “Catcher in the Rye” that I had stuffed in there alongside his laptop, just in case. He read all of it one sunny afternoon while sitting on the verandah of the Children’s Hospital. And he discovered he loved Holden Caulfield. And all.

Is this how addictive technology has become? Remember Wordsworth’s description of Lucy’s beauty? “Fair as a star, when only one is shining in the sky”. Are books now only sought out when nothing else is available?


Parents need to have a strategy at home.  It is work, it is not easy, and it is a point of contention between parents and their children.  Each child is different and parents will often need to tailor their approach to the specific needs of their children.

Having said that, there are some generic approaches that can be tailored if necessary.

1. Laptops should never be behind a closed door.  Laptops should never be in the bedroom.  Students should be working on the main floor somewhere in where that are being monitored.

2. Wireless should have time limits.  The child should know that they have so many hours a night for internet access.  If they need to download content for their studies then they can use their laptop “after-hours” but they cannot connect to the internet.

3. How the heck do I achieve #2: first, the wireless router should be on a timer similar to what is seen for turning lights on and off.  A schedule is made clear with the child.  For example:  wireless is only available from 7 to 9:30.  Before that is paper work and other studying.  If parents, or older children need a different schedule then buy two routers on different timers and passwords.  This is not difficult to do but if the parents struggle, then ask a friend.

4. handheld gaming.  #3 is important because almost all devices connect to the internet now.  So even if you put parental security on a laptop, they can still connect with their ipad/ipod/gameboy/etc.  If the home router is on a timer then it will totally be shut down at certain hours.  That is the best way to ensure they are not sitting in their room on the internet all night.

5. The phone bucket!  Have this by the front door or somewhere in the house so that all devices go somewhere that they parents can monitor them.  That bucket fills when the child comes home, or at sometime in the evening, and then it goes with the parents in the evening.

6. Parents should know every password for the students.  Facebook, msn etc etc.  Only use it if necessary. And sit down with the child every so many months and make sure that passwords work.  If they are living in you house, and you are driving them to hockey, and feeding them, and giving them a bed, etc, then knowing passwords is very little to give up.  If they won’t give you their passwords, then do not give them access to your (the parents) internet.  🙂  This one drives my son nutty but he conforms.

This is really intended for grade 6-9 or so.  After that, it gets tougher but some form of agreement between the child and parent to make it manageable.

I am sure there are lots of other strategies but these are the main ones I usually discuss with parents.


Those ideas  are excellent. I cringed, however, when I read them. Last year, my husband and I, in an effort to give our son the independence he requested, made a big mistake and gave him unfettered freedom with respect to doing his homework. The result of that strategy was that, by year end, our bright but insufficiently monitored son ended up on the “academic concern” list.

No good deed goes unpunished and our good intention was horribly misguided.

This year, we have guidelines very similar to those you outlined but the phone bucket is a brilliant idea we will be implementing. The difficulty is helping a 15 year old understand why it is important to learn each subject, as opposed to just scoring well on a test. I want to encourage scholarship and erudition as opposed to a ruthless efficiency in getting “high marks”. Although given the reaction around here when his report card arrived in June, I might have been mollified by more ruthless efficiency on his part.

My son’s poor results in a couple of subjects were the result of a perfect storm of all players here failing to do and failing to know what was required to be done to achieve good results. My father used to say that sometimes you can only know where the line is if you cross it.

Thanks for the good advice, Jim. That would certainly be valuable information on your blog for other parents.


2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Technology and Boys

  1. Jim, I thought you would be interested in the following Macintosh Library data for September and October in terms of the use of the library (I presume the parent was alluding to the school library in this comment). Happy to help parents with similar concerns if needed.

    Macintosh Library Statistics for September and October:

    Print reference books used: 387
    Print books checked out: 232
    E-books “checked out”: 489
    Journals consulted in a few of our databases : 1608

    Total resources used: 2716 (and this is just a sample—I did not get reports for all databases)

    To date the Y1 forms have visited the library for an orientation, and 47 research classes have been held.

    On the library webpages there are resources for reader’s advisory (connecting the right book to the right reader) as well as access to Novelist, which is a tool to help identify titles for leisure reading that parents can use with their sons.

    You’ll be glad to hear that our boys are reading!

  2. To your skeptical parent, I’d note the following:

    Socrates opposed the 5th C. technology innovation of the introduction of writing and reading, believing it would be the end of thoughtful and deep understanding of ideas and literature, favoring the oral tradition that required extensive memorization.  Fortunately, Plato, that radical early adopter of new technology, quietly saw the advantages of the new technology, and recorded for posterity what Socrates actually had to say.

    And one shouldn’t underestimate the power of the new technologies for teaching and learning. Some of the most engaging teaching and learning is utilizing the very technologies parents and school authorities want to ban in schools.

    Not to say that reading books is not important.  I actually like schools that stop everything for a  hour a couple times a week for everyone to read, faculty included.

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