My son will turn nineteen in just over a month, and is leaving for Nashville to make his way in the music world soon thereafter. In preparation for this next phase of his life, and because as a graduated senior our house rules on no cell phone have been lifted, he has just purchased his first cell phone. As he sits before me on that first day, new phone in hand, he is both beaming and apprehensive.
We talk the next morning over breakfast and he indulges me (because of course he has heard it all before), as I go over the hit parade of things to most watch out for. I tell him that if he will hear me out, I will leave him to his own after this; except of course if it interferes with our relationship or house rules. I remind him of things like not on your body, not near your bed when you are sleeping, and never when driving. I remind him of things like never anything typed over a screen you wouldn’t say in person, along with my plea to not let this dumb down his exceptional social skills and his ability to meet interpersonal challenges head on and in person. I encourage him to protect his relationships, listen to his body, and always remain present noticing how he is using and why. The conversation is a good one. My rational mind is satisfied that the information I most want to convey has been said. I feel confident based on how he has been raised and who he is as a person, hoping that all of this will serve him well in the enormous challenge that stands before him.
Surprisingly so, I am even happy for him. I can see how he is ready to go off to make his way in the world of music, and that this device will help him do business as business is being done. I can see he has been given a childhood, a before, and a strong and discriminating foundation. I can see that he is watchful, creating boundaries, and at this point, is even a little wary of how this is going to change things for him.
And I can also see that in a matter of days his world has dramatically changed. Suddenly he is tied to something. Suddenly his mind is occupied by something. Quite extensively, from what I can see. Now there is this thing he has to check. Repeatedly. Now there is this thing that has to be charged, brought with him, and referenced before he can do anything else. It is striking to be on the outside of this. It is unsettling to watch how in a few short days, his mind has reset so profoundly to something outside of himself.
As the days have worn on a deep heaviness, more to the point, despair, has come over me as I see how much he suddenly needs this thing he has been more than OK without. I watch him now as this is the first thing he does every morning, and the last thing he does before going to bed at night. I see that his focus and his attention is with his phone now; a thing has become more interesting than us, or anything that is happening in our home.
Instead of a weekend morning stretching before us with room to catch up after he has woken up, maybe share some food, or connect over something in the moment, the screen captivates him now. It feels like I have to schedule time to interact with him, or wait for a time when he is not looking down at the screen. And what used to just organically arise and develop between us is gone. This is more than awful. Seeing it close up with one of my children for the very first time, I see that it is far, far worse for all of us than I have ever imagined, heard about, or observed. It hits me so hard that I am left without adequate words to describe the devastation I am witnessing; not just for him, but for all of our children and the families they are unknowingly distancing themselves from.
And while I know he is in the early throes of it all, and hopefully it will settle out in a way that best serves him, I cannot help but see that this thing owns him now in a way he used to own himself. And while this may be exactly what he wants and needs, to have something that catalyzes and firms up his severance from us, I can’t help but notice that this little piece of metal is being used as an avoidance of what is too difficult for him to be with.
This is the very same person, by the way, who just a short time ago maintained his music career, drove a car, and got together with friends; all without a cell phone. This is the same kid who would be gone all day, and more on weekends, not getting calls or an email until he got home, and who now suddenly can’t go more than a few minutes without checking to see what’s come in. This is the same kid who used to call anyone without hesitation, and who now texts instead. This is the same kid who would go off and read or play music and who now seems more interested in being available to his device.
It has become the priority. And even though, by many standards, he is making excellent and well thought out attempts at drawing good lines around when he is using it and when not, still, he is different to be around; beholden to, tied to, and enslaved by something outside of himself. I write this as my attempt to make sense of something that has the capacity to drive me mad with grief, despair and frustration. I write this as a way of reaching out. My mother’s heart is broken and bleeding, for him, for them, and for us.
I realize that one likely response to what I have just told you would be to say, well, of course this is happening, he was “deprived” all those years. If you had just let him have one all along this never would have happened. I do understand why it would be so much easier and far more reassuring to believe that this is happening because he didn’t get it earlier. Only, it’s not true. How do I know this? I know this because all I need to do is to look at the ones who started early, recognizing that they and their families are suffering the same fate as my son. Just sooner.
I know something deep in my bones. I bet you do too. That being, whether they get it early or late, they are succumbing to the technologies in ways that take them away from themselves, their families, and even the friends they remain ever “connected” to via the machines. If we could be willing to admit to what is happening we would put ourselves in a position to adequately guide and protect them. So, while it might be convenient to imagine that what I have described is nothing more than blow back brought on by “deprivation,” that would be a lie.
What if we were willing to both recognize and act on the fact that the screen technologies are an extremely seductive and addictive force? Perhaps more than anything we as people have ever had to contend with. What if we agreed to use as our starting point the recognition that the technologies are beyond our children, and should never, ever, be left up to them? How then might we proceed?