Children and Technology

A recent conversation lead me to thinking about children and computing. I have two daughters - 7yr and 3yr old. The wife and I have been quite strict with them in regards to screen time, at least during their pre-school years. We didn’t want to rob them of a proper childhood by letting them get glued to various tablets, TV or gaming systems. However, since my eldest started Kindergarten last year, there have been requirements for her to do online learning such as Mathletics and Phonics Hero. Like many things, I feel that teaching them some of the fundamentals at home could be much more valuable than the exposure they get at school. I don’t quite trust the school system to teach them computing basics, since I’m sure the teachers aren’t that well versed themselves.

Many of us can recall building/upgrading PC compatible machines, installing DOS/Windows and having to troubleshoot problems. It gave us such a good grounding in terms of understanding how technology works. I somewhat lament this as an opportunity lost nowadays, of getting a good understanding of what is going on underneath the hood. When your first exposure is to modern systems (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS), so much of what makes the system tick is hidden behind layers of convenience. It’s like learning to drive without learning how to change engine oil or a tyre.

Even the very concept of an Operating System could be foreign to the current generation of youth in years to come, as I recently found whilst explaining this very thing to my daughter.

This is where I’ve come to believe GNU/Linux has a role. The entire system is essentially built around encouraging you to tinker and learn. Swapping out the building blocks, adding your own, or even creating new ones is virtually expected. The added bonus is the implied focus on privacy and security (which is super important in the scary world out there). I feel an understanding of these foundational building blocks is transferrable to using other systems if/when required to by school/employment in their future.

It was also very cool recently when my daughter and I got to upgrade the RAM and installing an SSD into a new (old) laptop I acquired for distro-testing and general tom-foolery (supertuxkart, gcompris) with them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas around introducing the younglings to computing:

  • The argument over limiting screen time vs getting them an early start in computing?
  • Am I on the right track or are the way systems are developing, everything will be cloud based and the need to understand personal hardware and local operating systems will be obselete in 10 yrs?
  • Has anyone found a useful approach in developing an understanding of hardware, Linux, programming and/or computing systems in general?
  • What things have you done to help safeguared their privacy online, and helping them understand the importance of privacy?
  • Preparing them for the inevitability of online bullying, which IMO can be a lot more insidious and harmful than real life bullying?
  • What kind of things do you do with your own children/grandchildren/nieces/nephews and Linux/technology?

Any and all additional comments and suggestions are welcome.

@sleepyeyesvince, I have so much to say on this topic, that I may have to break it up into a couple of posts.

  1. The argument over limiting screen time vs getting them an early start in computing?
  • I’m a big believer in limiting screen time especially when they are young to encourage other healthy habits including ones that encourage tech later. My kids are older, 11, 14, 20. One of the best decisions we made 11 years ago was to keep our TV in the basement. Because most action in a home centers on the kitchen kids often want to play near where mom and dad are when they are home. With the TV on a different level, this turned the living room into a play zone and reading corner. With the TV on a different level it was not turned on for background noise. It was used to watch a movie together as a family or for mom and dad to watch a show after the kids went to bed. Our kids gravitated to reading in the living room or creating art at the dinner table or creative play with blocks, dolls, cars, etc in the living room. The main doors to the home were on this level as well encouraging the kids to get outside too. We took frequent family walks and bike rides which 2 of the 3 still enjoy a lot.

  • My 14 year old son, the programmer, has read countless pages of documentation both from PDF’s and actual books, and has taught himself C++, Python, Bash Scripting, and a little HTML and CSS. He has become a VIM ninja too, but all of that is the result of loving to read and spending hours reading then coding.

  • He still loves to take walks, and often solves programming problems or comes up with new ideas while he is disconnected from the screen and walking.

  • I choose to purposely expose my son to computers, screens, and Linux tech after 6th grade but by then he had great math and reading skills which have served his love of Linux and programming.

  • At the same time, I don’t think that you have to keep kids completely away from screens. My kids watched movies, and used Chromebooks in school starting in the 5th grade, and they were exposed to other screen entertainment but in small doses. Physical books and board games and outdoor games and typical toys took more of the time of their childhood.

  • Also as our three children developed we noticed they had skills in different areas. My son clearly took well to programming and logical thought. My oldest is talented musician and spends hours practicing her instruments, and my youngest seems to be the most creative of the bunch so she spends her free time cooking or doing art projects. I’m happy with all of their varied gifts.

  • I also don’t believe that the way we raised our children is the only right way. It worked for us, and we have enjoyed seeing the blessings of it. I have met plenty of children who are gifted, intelligent, and well adjusted who had way more screen time than my children. Because of our financial limitations our kids had less screens in the home. We have one TV. We don’t have Ipads for everyone. No gaming systems were purchased. You don’t get a cell phone till high school because of the cost of the monthly plan, etc… We could afford trips to the library and walks outside.

You mentioned that one of the most rewarding times you had with your daughter was upgrading a computer together. Kids love to spend time with their parents. If you continue to engage your children when you are doing something with tech, they will treasure that time with you, and they might take an interest in it and go far beyond what you are able to teach them.

  1. Has anyone found a useful approach in developing an understanding of hardware, Linux, programming and/or computing systems in general?
  • more on this later, it will have to be a separate post.
  1. What things have you done to help safeguared their privacy online, and helping them understand the importance of privacy?
  • Real full names are not used. I monitor every public area that they frequent. I regularly check browsing histories. No social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram while in grade school. Snap chat and Facebook can be used primarily to stay informed about team events in high school.
  • I’m not perfect at this, but so far we haven’t faced cyber bullying, but it is something to take seriously.
  1. Preparing them for the inevitability of online bullying, which IMO can be a lot more insidious and harmful than real life bullying?
  • see above

I think its important to have no screen time at some point during the day. My daughter (6yo) does a great job handling her time. She can go for a week and be all about Minecraft or Minetest, then go a month without. I make sure she has time during the day with no tech.

I think there will always be a need to know personal hardware, and hope to one day build a PC with her.

I put her on Manjaro, but will sometime walk her through how to maintain her own system.

Currently I only allow her on the family server, and she gets to navigate youtube on the TV while supervised (most of the time she pulls up nutcracker music anyway to practice her dancing).

Very awesome @mowest @cobbkris. Thanks. There is no one-size-suits-all solution, which is why I started this thread, looking for just that little nugget of gold (or two) that could make raising kids around technology that little bit easier.

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POST #2

  1. Has anyone found a useful approach in developing an understanding of hardware, Linux, programming and/or computing systems in general?
  • See #2 for more ideas, but I wanted to focus on introducing Linux and programming to children. A free C++ programming course three summers ago introduced my son to the world of programming. It was done on Windows in Eclipse, and they were rewriting the code that ran the High School robot from the previous year FIRST competitions. Since the course started with CLI type programs that did simple functions and displayed the output, I realized that one of the best ways to give my son the opportunity to practice coding in C++ was to set up a Linux box because the compiler was free software. At the time I had only a 1st generation RPi that I had never hooked up and booted, and an old family laptop that we hadn’t used in 3+ years because the hard drive was so slow. We set up the “Geek Cave” (see below) with the RPi hooked up, and I got a new SSD for the old laptop and installed Rasbian on the RPi and KDE Neon on the laptop.
  • He loved that experience on the RPi using Geany to program, and compiling his programs and running them in the terminal. With only 512mb of RAM he ran into issues when he wanted to go onto the internet with Chromium to look up documentation. I encouraged him to use my old laptop for that, but also pointed out that he could do so much more in the terminal than just compile and run his C++ programs. He could surf the web, he could change directories, list files, manage his files with simple commands, and even edit his .bashrc to do even more. After doing this, something clicked for him. He fell in love with the terminal and the pure text nature of the terminal. He started reading man pages, using vim, and finding all sorts of cool terminal based programs. He even asked me once, “Why doesn’t everyone use their computer like this? (referring to interacting with the computer with text instead of with GUI and mouse)”
  • Linux offers so much to learn about technology and programs. His reading of man pages and documentation from the Linux Documentation Project made him love Linux all the more. If he didn’t have the love of reading like he does, I don’t know what route his journey would have taken, but I know a love of reading and the terminal seem to go well together.
  • Some books that helped him was “C++ on the Raspberry Pi” and he has read a variety of the Python books relating to the RPi too.
  • Some of his favorite coding projects early on was a recreation of a shell environment. You started it up, and you had different commands you could run and different programs you could start, little games he had written, and he even had programmed an ncurses menu type interface. He isn’t familiar with DOS, but his program reminded me of the early DOS days when you would load up a utility program that did all sorts of things and used a ncurses type menu to interact with it.
  • The terminal opened up so much power to my son early, because he could write simple programs without having to worry about the GUI framework that still did really neat things. Because of my experience I wonder if exposing our kids to the terminal might help them get excited about the underlining tech and OS because you don’t have the GUI hiding those pieces away, they are more exposed in the CLI.
  1. What kind of things do you do with your own children/grandchildren/nieces/nephews and Linux/technology?
  • My son and I listen to Linux podcasts together. We have our “Geek Cave” in the basement which is basically a folding 8 foot table from a banquet hall where we sit next to each other on our respective Linux distros showing each other new things we have learned, new programs we are using, and new tweaks we have made to our DE or WM of choice at the time. Also when I want to write a simple bash script, my son teaches me what to do to make it work. We have set up Raspberry Pi server projects together, and trouble shoot the issues we run into together. We have conversations in the car about what we have been doing in Linux. We have taken apart old hardware together and replaced a HDD with an SSD, replaced a CPU fan in a laptop, replaced a graphics cable in a Chromebook, and swapped out memory in desktops. We have tried to install Linux on every piece of hardware we can find and get working. We have cleaned up and installed two Linux boxes (old Win7 Dells) at his high school, and we are in charge of fixing them when they break.