The other weekend, we took the kids to a farm in Connecticut where they fed animals and climbed haystacks. As a New York City family, these are the requisite October rituals: Drive far away from the concrete, the Gray's Papayas and the honking to see animals, pick apples and inhale the glorious air. Buy a pumpkin. Head home.
Like any mom with Facebook and Instagram accounts, I posted pictures. One was of my 9-year-old daughter feeding a goat, tentative but serene, her hand reaching over the fence holding hay, her cheeks rosy from the crisp air. The caption read "And for a few moments, she is not on the iPad."
The iPad, iPhone, iApple Anything -- these modern-day toys consume my life in various ways, as I know they do yours. I leverage the iPad to bribe my kids, discuss how much time they can spend on it, lament the current battery life, negotiate app purchases, complain how addicted my kids are, am addicted myself, exchange strategies with other moms about how to avoid arguing about electronics and threaten my kids with a no-screen time weekend. Sound familiar?
The most common conversation I have with other parents is about how we wish our kids would step away from the Candy Crush (or is that very 2013?) and talk to one another more. We fear they won't develop crucial social skills and will grow up to become adults who don't make eye contact or ask about your day (and mean it). We fear their future is one big text-athon, eyeballs down and thumbs ready, all Tinder and carpal tunnel.
And yes, I think about all that. But what concerns me even more than my kids -- all our kids -- sidestepping real interaction with others is their not being alone with their thoughts and feelings -- the happy ones, the dreamy ones, the uncomfortable ones, the ones they want to get away from. Those moments that allow us to get to know ourselves, all parts of ourselves, not just the likes and dislikes or how our Facebook profile pic looks. How will they engage in any self-reflection or inner mining if they're in a constant loop of Vine videos and Starbucks selfies?
I picture myself 20 years ago, a law school student living in Brooklyn. I would visit my parents in the suburbs some weekends, riding the Long Island Railroad for my mom's cooking and a getaway from my shared walk-up apartment on Montague Street. I remember one trip where, heartbroken over a breakup, I carried an overly dog-eared, highlighted copy of Alain de Botton's novel, On Love. Alternating between reading and staring out the window, I cried because the words on the page resonated so deeply with me. Dramatic? Maybe. But I was in my early 20's and it was idle time spent thinking and digesting words that were cathartic -- which rendered that train ride idyllic. Had I had an iPhone back then, maybe I would have chosen to reach the next level on Sonic Dash, repressing my feelings and none the wiser. Decades later, I don't remember de Botton's exact words, but I remember how they made me feel. I remember the clarity they gave me. I remember moving on.
I think of myself before that, in college, with friends at a local bar in Champaign, Illinois with our red Solo cups and 25-cent beers. A gaggle of hormones and hairspray, we spent much of our evenings standing on that sticky floor, talking about which guys had walked in, which had left, which had caught our glimpses from underneath curled lashes. In retrospect, those instances before the flirting, before the banter with the boys, it was all so important: the self-consciousness, how unsure we were of ourselves and what we wanted -- we felt it all. Imagine if we had numbed ourselves with a long Twitter perusal, missing it all and only showing up when it felt emotionally safe.
I'm not immune to the pull of it all. While riding the bus, I share links on Facebook to the previous night's Jimmy Fallon bits and scroll through my Instagram feed. But when I'm present enough, I make a conscious effort to put my phone away and stare out the window. And then amazing things happen: I work shit out in my head, I have creative breakthroughs with ideas for clients, new photography and writing projects come streaming through, as if on tap. I become more myself, as someone on Oprah might have once said.
Having such a powerful numbing substance literally at your fingertips is a very insidious, yet seemingly benign, act. It's not like carrying around a flask or a box of donuts. No one will judge you if you still like Doodle Jump.
So yes, I worry about my girls seeking constant dopamine hits from their smartphones -- as some neuroscientists have described the experience -- and missing out on conversations with peers. But mostly, I fear their not being able to engage in the most important dialogue of all: an inner one.