Recently I asked a friend if she would talk to me about her decision to get her two girls a cell phone. Part of what prompted my request was a conversation we had, along with us both seeing Screenagers; a documentary which follows one family’s journey to getting their 12 year old a smartphone. Here is what she wrote:
I went back and read my journals, and the drafts of the contracts Mike and I drew up together, and remembered the dozens of conversations I had had with friends and family, and I thought, actually we did a lot of due diligence and deliberation around this. And still, it wasn’t enough. Maybe, though, it was never meant to be a one shot deal? Maybe there was no way to perfectly foresee what transformations we would undergo?
I have been really wrestling with this; what I can control and what is beyond me. So, when we got together with my brother and his kids over Easter, he and I agreed on a phone moratorium during the family holiday. We were both expecting a certain amount of unholy blowback, but were strengthened by our mutual resolve. And then, the blowback didn’t happen! The kids were completely fine about it, and didn’t do any of the addictive dry-drunk manipulation I was cynically expecting. We did puzzles, hung out, talked politics, and hiked. We had a lovely time.
The anticlimactic result of all my worry made me realize that a huge part of the problem is us. I think parents, myself included, make technology into this incredibly powerful force in our lives and shudder to think about what would happen if we tried to take it away. Even my brother expressed this sort of supernatural awe when we were talking about kids and phones and he said: “I don’t think it is enough to limit access to the I-phone. I feel like we need to drive a stake through its heart!” I too have this fantasy of incinerating them all in a big cleansing fire, freeing ourselves in some all-or-nothing, magical way from this infestation of Silicon Valley succubi.
This black or white thinking has characterized my approach to technology up until now– either roll over and take it, or rage against the machine and ground everyone because I am convinced that it is destroying us. But you know what? Nothing is black or white. I can’t turn back time and undo everything. Some things are here to stay (at least for now): AIDS, CO2, overpopulation, mental illness, technology, addiction, capitalism. I am realizing that the cognitive distortion of “It’s evil incarnate and I am helpless before it’s insidious, invidious power!” is just not a helpful position for me to take.
And so I meditated on all of this for a while. And I talked to Mike. And I looked at the phone contract we had made together 3 years ago. Then I called a family meeting and said we needed to revisit this because things have morphed considerably since our original agreement. I told the girls; “There is no blame or punishment here, because that is what living things do.They morph.They push the limits.They test the waters. And these objects are designed to make themselves indispensable and send little pellets of dopamine to our hungry brains every time they vibrate or ding.”
I forbore going into all the research around the effects of technology on developing brains, although I was tempted. Instead, I kept it simple. I said, “we miss you.” I told them how I had noticed that when each of them had lost phone privileges recently how happy I had felt. Not because they were suffering, but because I didn’t feel like a second class citizen in my own house. Because I didn’t feel like some invisible string was always pulling them away from me and toward this infinite, horizonless, virtual feast; no pavlovian yank on their chain every time a text came through. No involuntary swivel of the eyeball.
I told them that what we needed was some space between us and our compulsions, because in the end awareness is the best protection we have. Therefore, the phones would to be staying downstairs from here on out. All the time. Except maybe for an hour or so before bed time if they wanted to talk to someone privately in their room. I went on to say that they were not be used anymore until chores, home work, exercise, dinner, etc were completed. Further, the phones were not to be used during homework, because, contrary to everything our culture tells us, multitasking does not make us smarter, more efficient, or better. And, you know what, it seemed as if the girls were expecting this, even wanting me to say all this. When our talk was over, it was as if a spell had been broken.
Now, the devil is in the details. I am all too aware of how slippery a slope this is. The work is never really done. But that makes it like just about everything else in life. As long as we don’t delude ourselves that this is the final word on the subject, we will figure it out as we go. I think the realization here for me was that my vulnerability has real power, and that connection is recoverable. Saying what we want, what we long for, what we want to rebuild is speaking from strength. I don’t think I quite believed that before.