Dirty Laundry: Off to study raising children in this digital age

Aisha Sultan

Recently, my youngest child asked a question about love and God. He quickly realized from my reaction that he must have said something clever. As I reached for my laptop, he said, “Are you going to write what I said on Facebook? Do not write it there!”

I was stunned. In fact, I was going to post his thoughts and solicit comments. But even a 5-year-old can assert intellectual property rights. And I respected his wishes.

This is an emerging gray area in parenthood: How much do we share of our children’s lives when chats around kitchen tables have been replaced with chats on social networks. I’ve been thinking about this question and the much larger one of the impact of technology on family life ever since I began writing this column nearly four years ago.

I’ve realized the many questions surrounding these issues required more than the attention I could offer in a single week. So, earlier this year I applied for a Knight Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan. The fellowship is for journalists who want to study a topic in-depth for an academic year. My proposal was selected as one among a dozen other journalists from across the country.

Beginning this fall, my family and I will relocate to Ann Arbor, where I’ll embark on this yearlong study on raising children in this digital age. Technology has changed our expectations of family members and the way we communicate with one another. It has redefined adultery in relationships and communication between parents and their children. Increasingly, it takes a social network to raise our children, and the phenomenon is still little understood.

And now, a generation of social networking natives are raising children, joining an army of mommy bloggers and parents posting on Twitter. Their children have gone viral in YouTube videos and had their milestones documented via Facebook.

I wonder how these new ways of connecting, entertaining and learning will impact a child’s development. Our children are growing up in a different sort of fishbowl, one in which they are constantly performing while leaving a permanent record. They are immersed in a world with smartphones, Wiis and iPads and will certainly gain experiences we never had as children. But what have they lost? How important is that which is lost?

What happens when we make our private moments public property? A recent survey suggests that 92 percent of American children have an online footprint by age 2. This raised a series of questions to me: To what extent do we own our children’s right to privacy? How will children construct their own sense of self in a world in which one has already been constructed for them? How will this impact their own notion of personal privacy as they mature? What does it means to rely on the wisdom of crowds to influence personal family decisions?

Reports also suggest that babies do not receive as much interaction from tech-addicted parents, potentially changing the way babies acquire language skills. Is there a measurable impact when children are raised by parents who keep one eye on a screen and the other on the household? The constant connectivity that has become such an accepted part of our lives has changed our very brain structure, along with the social and psychological effects.

It was a difficult decision to take almost a year-long break from writing for the Post-Dispatch to uproot my family and pursue this project. The relationships I’ve developed with readers of this column are among the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced as a journalist. When I write about my grandparents’ long marriage, I get to hear stories about your own enduring marriages. You’ve shared some family secrets and memories of your childhoods. You’ve taken me to task when you’ve disagreed (some more kindly than others) and have offered support when I’ve exposed my own struggles.

I’ve learned something valuable from your letters, phone calls and emails. I’m grateful for those who make my stories part of their weekend ritual. We are part of the same village raising our children, invested in their futures, and this is a transformative moment for families.

As a parenting columnist, I publicly share my narrative of family life. I hope that taking a year to study data, undertake original research and reflect on this phenomenon will help me write stories that shed light on what this path holds for our children. I’m looking forward to returning from this sabbatical and sharing the insights I’ll gain.

The topic of family and technology hits close to home. There is an inherent tension between my desire to reveal and share as parent and a writer, while still protecting my family’s privacy. I consider what I am revealing of my children’s lives through my work. I want to explore what happens to children whose parents broadcast parts of their lives because it is the story of my own children.

It will be the story of their generation.

Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at asultan@post-dispatch.com.