Raising the realtime child

Amazingly enough, tomorrow will mark the one-year anniversary of the start of Rough Type’s Realtime Chronicles. Time flies, and realtime flies like a bat out of hell.

Since I began writing the series, I have received innumerable emails and texts from panicked parents worried that they may be failing in what has become the central challenge of modern parenting: ensuring that children grow up to be well adapted to the realtime environment. These parents are concerned – and rightly so – that their kids will be at a disadvantage in the realtime milieu in which we all increasingly live, work, love, and compete for the small bits of attention that, in the aggregate, define the success, or failure, of our days. If maladapted to realtime existence, these parents understand, their progeny will end up socially ostracized, with few friends and even fewer followers. “Can we even be said to be alive,” one agitated young mother wrote me, “if our status updates go unread?” The answer, of course, is no. In the realtime environment, the absence of interactive stimuli, even for brief periods of “time,” may result in a state of reflective passivity indistinguishable from nonexistence. On a more practical level, a lack of realtime skills is sure to constrain a young person’s long-term job prospects. At best, he or she will be fated to spend his or her days involved in some form of manual labor, possibly even working out of doors with severely limited access to screens. At worst, he or she will have to find a non-tenure-track position in academia.

Fortunately, raising the realtime child is not difficult. The newborn human infant, after all, leads a purely realtime existence, immersed entirely in the “stream” of realtime alerts and stimuli. As long as the child is kept in the crosscurrents of the messaging stream from the moment of parturition – the biological womb replaced immediately with the wi-fi and/or 3G womb – adaptation to the realtime environment will likely be seamless and complete. It is only when a sense that time may consist of something other than the immediate moment is allowed to impinge on the child’s consciousness that maladaption to realtime becomes a possibility. Hence, the most pressing job for the parent is to ensure that the realtime child is kept in a device-rich networked environment at all times.


[photo credit: Wesley Fryer; CC BY 2.0]

It is also essential that the realtime child never be allowed to run a cognitive surplus. His or her mental accounts must always be kept in perfect balance, with each synaptical firing being immediately deployed for a well-defined chore, preferably involving the manipulation of symbols on a computer screen in a collaborative social-production exercise. If cognitive cycles are allowed to go to waste, the child may drift into an introspective “dream state” outside the flow of the realtime stream. It is wise to ensure that your iPhone is well-populated with apps suitable for children, as this will provide a useful backup should your child break, lose, or otherwise be separated from his or her own network-enabled devices. Printed books should in general be avoided, as they also tend to promote an introspective dream state, though multifunctional devices that include e-reading apps, such as Apple’s forthcoming iPad, are permissible.

The out-of-doors poses particular problems for the realtime child, as nature has in the past earned a reputation for inspiring states of introspectiveness and even contemplativeness in impressionable young people. (Some psychologists even suggest that looking out a window may be dangerous to the mental health of the realtime child.) Sometimes it is simply impractical to keep a child from interacting with the natural world. At these moments, it is all the more important that a child be outfitted with portable electronic devices, including music players, smartphones, and gaming instruments, in order to ensure no break in the digital stream. If you are not able to physically accompany your child on expeditions into the natural world, it is a good idea to send text messages to your child every few minutes just to be on the safe side. The establishment of Twitter accounts for children is also highly recommended.


[photo credit: Robert Scoble; CC BY 2.0]

The challenges of keeping your child in a realtime environment can be trying, but remember: history is on your side. The realtime environment becomes increasingly ubiquitous with each passing day. It is also important to remember that one of the great joys of modern parenthood is documenting your realtime infant’s or toddler’s special moments through texts, tweets, posts, uploaded photos, and YouTube clips. The realtime child presents ideal messaging-fodder for the realtime parent.

Realtime is a journey that you and your child take together. Every moment is unique because every moment is disconnected from both the one that precedes it and the one that follows it. Realtime is a state of perpetual renewal and unending and undifferentiated stimulus. The joy of infancy continues forever.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

14 thoughts on “Raising the realtime child

  1. EZPowell

    The Internet is making us stupid? I disagree. Throughout human hsitory, anything that has made our lives easier in the past, from control of fire to genetic engineering, has allowed us to focus less of our time on simple physical survival, and has given us more time to think about other things and come up with new ideas. Why should access to information at our fingertips hinder progress? Maybe we should look on the bright side of it and picture that instant access to information will free up part of our brains to solving problems, as opposed to digging around in a library trying to find some as of yet unknown titbit of data.

  2. Tom Lord

    First: that color looks good on you, Mr. Carr.

    Second: My wife and I were talking about this piece and she observed that you may be conflating cause and effect. That is to say, she locates (and I’m inclined to agree) that the loss of deep culture has origins that predate not only the modern “web” but even home micro-computers and video games. The question arises to what extent modern and obnoxious trends on the realtime networks are more symptom than agent of infection, so to speak.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    “Can we even be said to be alive,” one agitated young mother wrote me, “if our status updates go unread?”

    “Alive” is hyperbole. But if your status updates go unread, you have no status.

  4. Kelly Roberts

    What is this “introspective `dream state’ outside the flow of the realtime stream” of which you speak? Does not compute.

  5. alan

    Mr. Carr, your tongue in cheek post might well pose a problem if you attempt to swallow anything other than air. It has been thrust deeply enough to pose a serious threat to your heath.

    It is with great relief that I can inform you that young children have and will always live in real time. The dream world you so apply describe must surely be the place from which this post emanated.


  6. Nick Carr

    …young children have and will always live in real time.

    So true. The challenge for parents, as I said, is to ensure that this state is maintained into adulthood.

    The dream world you so apply [sic] describe must surely be the place from which this post emanated.

    A troubling but perhaps accurate observation. Despite my best efforts, there are moments when I drift out of realtime.

    My apologies for the lapse.

  7. dafna

    dear mr. carr,

    help! please return to the hannibal blog. or comment here. i loved your comment and am glad to have discovered your blog.

    i have aphasia, but even i can make simple connections – information is power, societies have historically tried to exercise control by controlling access to information, so why not predict that there will be a power play for control of the internet. pew forecast here.

    does no one give a crap? digital disparity due to “end -to end” conflicts and the cost to pay for digital flotsam seem like blog worth topics to me.

  8. dafna

    BTW, i will still exist in dream world, if i you don’t get chance to respond.

    wow, just got the realtime pun, well done. i wonder if in the real world, there is a real age in which we outgrow the ability to stay in real time?

  9. alan

    dafna, that is the greatest of all challenges. Time and age pushes concepts to the fore and makes percept, that which resides behind the myriad judgments and various lenses we view the world through, some thing less than reality.

    Young children live a world uncluttered by concepts and tinted lenses.


  10. Stefan

    “The out-of-doors poses particular problems for the realtime child,…”

    How nicely it’s all turned around. I’ve always considered the kids outside being part of the realtime and those behind the screens part of the virtual one (or virtual spacetime?).

    As my dad used to say “too much of anything harms”. There must be a balance.

  11. David Evans

    There are some that believe the brain to be a computational device. There is an argument that if you link one computational device to another – i.e. a brain straight into another ‘puter, then you create something that can be reduced to a single Turing machine. A single Turing machine falls into the trap of Gödel’s theorem, and therefore an argument can be developed that consciousness is impossible. If such a chain of logic were true, then a baby connected to a social network isn’t properly conscious.

    Then again, I’m not sure that matters; I’ve gone through significant periods of my life without being properly conscious.

    The important thing is that because we see you occasionally replying to comments, Nick, that we realise you are attentive to our thoughts. I get occasionally noticed by Nick Carr, therefore I am.

    Gosh, this is all just a bit depressing, isn’t it?

  12. Mrdrakkar10


    By accident I found your blog. My initial intent is to write you about my university and their distaste for me quoting the Online Encyclopedia Britannica; however, I am quite excited because I am an Intervention Specialist K-12 working with students online, and your blog is filled with quality content for children, reading, and learning electronically.

    Your blog states: “Printed books should in general be avoided, as they also tend to promote an introspective dream state, though multifunctional devices that include e-reading apps, such as Apple’s forthcoming iPad, are permissible.”

    When I read anything on my PC, I am so IN tune, but give me a traditional paper text book and I’m bored, unless there is good graphics, color. Your comments about paper books have my attention.

    Randall Loomis

  13. Larry Port

    Hey Nick:

    Do you plan on tackling this issue in a constructive way or are you just going to have fun with irony?

    This is a big deal. I’m hoping the new book offers some insights and is not a complain-fest.


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