I have long suspected that I have a more than typically intense relationship with electronic devices. At bedtime I place my arsenal -- phone, laptop and iPad -- within arm's reach, ready to keep me company when I waken during the night. I keep my phone nearby in the car, too, and admit to sending texts while at red lights. I sneak peeks at my email during dinner. When I was on jury duty last week, I (momentarily, but seriously) considered "forgetting" to surrender my phone to the (armed) marshals who were there to enforce the court's "no electronics of any kind" rule.
This is a problem for anyone. But it has an extra wrinkle when you write about parenting for a living.
"Do as I say, not as I do" is hypocrisy, yes, yet it also reflects every parent's wish not to pass his or her worst traits onto the children. The constant itch to be connected is one of mine -- and I well know it can be passed down, because I inherited it myself.
There is the family tale of my grandfather pacing before a shiny new bank of pay phones in a 1950s hotel lobby, muttering in frustration because "I can't think of anyone I can call! There MUST be someone I can call!" There are my memories of his daughter, my mother, racing with anticipation into the house every single day after work to get the mail, always certain that today it would contain something new and wonderful. (It rarely did, but there was always tomorrow.) Then there's me, spending my 20s pressing in codes to check if someone had left my answering machine a message, and my 30s checking email the moment I found myself in front of anyone's desktop computer, and my 40s carrying the constant possibility of connection in my pocket.
So, what about my children?
Parenting is my journalistic beat, and so I have read all the studies. I know that Americans now consume 12 hours of media a day, compared with five in 1960. I know that playing video games lowers sleep quality and memory in young teens, causes visible changes to the risk and reward processing centers of the brain, and has been shown to decrease attention span or increase it but definitely to alter it. I know that exposure to screens before bed can disrupt sleep in humans, and it's not too good for rats, either. I know that the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the bible of psychological ailments, will include "Internet use disorder" as an area "recommended for further study." I have written articles about all this, and given speeches. I know enough to be scared.
The simple response -- go ahead, you can say it, the RIGHT response -- would be to crack down. Seeing the appeal of connectivity, and knowing it is somehow in my children's genes (my husband, the geneticist, would argue that's not how genes work, but he sometimes forgets to check his text messages for hours at a time, so he can't really understand), a good mother would keep screens out of their lives entirely. And she would go cold turkey on her own apparent addiction, too. At least in front of her kids.
I didn't do any of that.
Yes, I made some rules over the years. No phones at the dinner table. No screen play until homework is done. No televisions in the bedroom. But my boys were experts at SuperMario by kindergarten and had graduated to World of Warcraft by high school. They were never the first of their friends to have Game Boys or cellphones or laptops, but they were rarely the last, either.
I allowed this, in part, because it was fun. I knew exactly how much fun, because I felt it myself -- the fascination of immersion in an online realm, the comfort of a running conversation in bits and bytes, the feeling of being part of something. In part, I allowed it because it was practical -- knowing this world would prepare them for their technological future -- and in part, because I looked for, and didn't see, red flags. There is, I reasoned, a difference between attachment and addiction (I have taken the screening tests myself and know I also fall below the clinical addiction zone). Like me, my boys showed signs of craving connectivity, yes, but not ones of inability to cope in the real world; they were reaching out to the world, not shutting it out.
And in part I allowed it because it was easier than constantly fighting the tide or changing my own ways.
It's that last part that haunts me.
Was I right? Was I making a carefully considered choice? Or was I caving to the path of least complaint? I'm not sure yet.
They seem fine. Now in college they are both digital natives, less awed and amazed by technology than I am, more adept. They are also less comfortable without a screen. Phone conversations flummox them; they just don't get the point.
Every generation is a social experiment with no control group, resulting in young adults who are products of their times and who then go on to raise children who, in turn, are products of different times. As parents we can only learn what we can then do our best, with no do-overs and no way of knowing what would have happened if we'd done differently.
"We'll keep it safe," the courthouse marshal promised each morning as I reluctantly handed over my phone. Then I spent hours sitting in the jurors lounge, turning actual pages in an actual book, and eyeing the bank of pay phones along one wall. I couldn't think of anyone to call -- at least not anyone whose number I remembered without my address book.
A young man, barely out of his teens caught my eye at one point, pointed to the unused cluster of phones, and asked, "Do you know the cost of a local call?"
I realized I have absolutely no idea.