Saturday, January 16, 2010

Information Overload

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” -- Gertrude Stein, b. 1874, d. 1946.

That was Gertrude’s rant and she died about forty years before fax machines became popular, cells phones invaded all our waking hours, and just about everything in the world from sex to sippy cups could be purchased over the internet. Gertrude’s face was never booked and her thoughts were never tweeted. People didn’t get pissy at her for not responding to a text within seconds of it being sent. She did not have the option of watching news (with additional news crawling across the screen under the news) on over 300 channels of television or online or from her iPhone. And yet, she complained about how being bombarded by too much information could make you lose your common sense. Girlfriend, you have no idea…

My husband and I are at parenting odds over how much is too much information for our daughters to consume. When they were younger, I was fairly strict about what I let them watch on TV and listen to on the radio, what websites I would let them surf and what movies I’d take them to see – if it wasn’t G or maybe PG – their eyeballs weren’t getting anywhere near it. I recognize that “different families do different things” and it is a phrase I am constantly throwing at my kids when they try to get me to let them see something that one of their other friends has been allowed to see, so much so that they now taunt me with the phrase whenever they can. But I constantly find myself searching for the midline of how much information/media/stimulation makes sense for my kids to be exposed to.

David wants very little to filter down to them, whereas I think that as they get older, they need to be more connected to what’s happening in the world through news, the internet and the media. So we started by letting them spend more time on the web than the 1 hour a week they were currently logging. We got a few emails from them that were sent just for the novelty of sending. They checked out a few new websites – mostly puppy and fashion related sites – although when I walked by the computer in the family room and saw Nicole typing in something like Hot Games for Girls, I had a moment of panic about what would pop on the screen. Go figure, it’s a girl’s fashion designing game site!

Then we started to expand their access to additional information by letting them see more than the usual DisneyNickCartoonNetwork shows. Of course, David has selective snobbery about what he deems acceptable for them to see…in other words, if it is a show he wants to watch, then it’s okay if the show has some of the offending elements that he usually wants to keep them from – gunfire, bloodshed, an errant curse word here or there.

“It’s a fun show,” he’ll say in his own defense, “and I don’t let them see it all.”

Instead of offending fiction, I figure if their brains are going to be exposed to the ugly in the world, I want them to see current events. And even though these days the lines between fiction and reality are permanently blurred, I started letting them watch the morning news, which had both good and bad results.

I tried starting with local news, but then my oldest, Nicole, kept asking me about the proximity of the robberies, water main breaks, and political rallies they kept reporting on. She started sneaking off and putting the deadbolt on the front door and checking to make sure the burglar alarm was on even during the daytime. I wasn’t sure if she was afraid of a break-in or a visit from our congressman. So then I switched to the national network news, thinking that if the events were farther way, she wouldn’t feel so directly threatened by the stories. However, that particular week seemed to be wall-to-wall coverage about missing, kidnapped children, parent-child murder-suicides and workplace shootings. Great! My six year old daughter, Natalie, who is the tougher of the two and strives to be fearless, kept asking me questions about the news, trying to analyze the happenings rather than being traumatized by them. Turns out, I was the one who was traumatized. Ever try explaining child abduction and stories about parents who take out their whole families because of emotional distress in non-threatening, matter-of-fact, informational terms that a six year old can understand? It’s harder than having to come up with an answer for “Where do babies come from?” Natalie seemed comfortable with the news stories and satisfied by the answers I stumbled through.

“Tough kid,” I thought. “See, David is wrong and I am right…when there is all this information floating around in the world, kids need to be informed, aware, it helps them make sense of the information overload.” Yeah, right.

About a couple of days after my little news exposure experiment, Natalie reverted to getting in our bed at night…but only after waking me up first at 3 am to let me know she was crawling into our bed. Then a few minutes later, Nicole would follow her in, also waking me to let me know that she was climbing into bed or getting into a sleeping bag at the foot of our bed (for me to trip over in the morning.) This went on for a week, with us trying at first to follow all the parenting books and their advice about how to train your kid to sleep in their bed by getting up and walking them back to their rooms. That only worked twice. After that, David and I were too tired to bother and let them crowd us out of our queen-size bed. Several days of sore backs and sleepless nights, I realized that too much information, too young, was not good. They don’t need to be that aware, do they? At least not so aware and scared that it interrupts my REM cycles.

In my effort to have them take advantage of our new digital age and expose my kids to all the wonderful opportunities on the information superhighway, I lost my common sense. I overloaded them, worried them, and worst of all ruined all of our sleep. Like Gertrude said, there are too many ways to get information these days and honestly, maybe a little SpongeBob Squarepants is all we need.

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