I recently woke up before anyone else in our house. I would like to report that I took a deep breath, opened the curtains to take in the beauty of the day, rolled out my yoga mat and completed a set of restorative and energising yoga poses. But I'd be lying. Truth be told, barely lifting my head I reached for my phone and the only thing that got a bit of stretching that morning was my index finger as it scrolled through my twitter feed. After a fewish minutes (hard to gauge – time flies when you're scrolling) I heard my son's footsteps coming to our room. I practically threw the phone onto my bedside table for fear of being caught red handed. You may wonder why I panicked as if about to be bust doing a drug deal on my bed. In that split second I became abundantly aware of my blatant hypocrisy. I spend time playing screen police with my kids. They openly deplore my screen management style and here I was barely awake and doing not as I say.
Having come clean on my own vulnerability and attraction to the screen like a moth to a flame, it is something that sits uncomfortably with me, particularly around children. I often think about how we are dealing with balancing all that those screens have to offer in terms of linking us with people, knowledge, ideas and news and what we are potentially losing in the great disconnect from what is happening right in front of us. So what's at stake and what can we do about it?
The Connection Keeps Dropping
Sheryl Turkle's research and ideas in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age resonate strongly with me, particularly when she talks about the impact that the digital age is having on families and the demise of family conversations.
"Relationships deepen not because we necessarily say anything in particular but because we are invested enough to show up for another conversation. In family conversations, children learn that what can matter most is not the information shared but the relationships sustained. It is hard to sustain these relationships if you're on the phone."
We all know that blurry, detached, switched off mode we and our children go into when reading or watching something on a device. The result as Turkle points out is that children tend to become passive and detached and try and seek out adult attention in what she describes as "futile bursts of bad behaviour."
We are continually losing our ability to be still, to be quiet. When last did you stand in a queue, or arrive somewhere first and not whip out your phone? We quickly fill up that potential still space with more busyness in our already busy lives. This could be time that we take a deep breath, think something through or simply be alone with our thoughts. Time that could help give us some perspective so that we are less reactive and more thoughtful. I am not much of a Facebook contributor but I can literally while away the hours voyeuristically getting lost in comments upon comments of people upon people that I barely know.We have to question: What we are role modelling for our kids? How can we possibly expect them to do differently, to talk to us, to have an inner world where they are thinking things through and sharing with us when we haven't shown them how. Conversations and connections are at stake in our own families.
Screens on the social scene
My 10-year-old son has declared that he would rather go "play" at other people's houses because they are allowed more Xbox time. My son and his friends are mostly into playing the FIFA soccer game which seems innocuous on the gaming front. This aint no Grand Theft Auto situation or some other frighteningly violent game and I recognise that. I also recognise that these kids are not glued to the screen 24/7. But they are still staring at a screen a lot of the time, albeit jumping up and shouting. They are also missing out on talking to each other with eye contact and all. It may be FIFA now but who knows what their gaming future holds. It's pretty much a certainty that when the FIFA obsession wanes, there will be some other less innocuous but equally addictive game to replace it.
When I put on the Xbox breaks I am often greeted with "We're bored." If playdates ended with a feedback form, I would love the kids to tick the "Had loads of fun" box. So I have to resist the urge to pull rabbits out of hats and manifest the funnest of fun ideas from the depths of my brain. I might respond with a couple of ideas but I try dig deep for courage and say "Ok, well then be bored." You see, I know that from boredom great things can emerge. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't but at least I would love to know that children have some space to think up ideas, problem solve together and make their own fun. This can only stand them in good stead in the real big world wide web out there.
So what to do?
We have to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable to the pull of the screen. (Admitting we have a problem is the first step.)
We have to consciously manage our own screen time and remember that our kids see and learn from what we are doing.
We need to be cognisant of the fact that research emphasises the vital role that early attentive caregiving has on long term social and academic success. We cannot be attentive caregivers if we don't put down our phones.
We need to know that while younger kids are generally open to some quality time with us at the drop of a hat, its different when our kids hit adolescence. We need to be ready for when they are ready to talk, we don't want to miss those opportunities because we were tweeting.
We need to manage our children's screens in a boundaried way- remembering we are the adults.
It can help to think about what we potentially lose when we choose screens. Devices handed out in restaurants, on long journeys, at mealtimes and at playdates deprive children of the opportunities to observe the world and learn how to be social in different settings. If they don't do it, they won't know how to do it. When we are with someone and we are with a screen, we are a distracted and diluted version of ourselves.
We have to prioritise conversations. As Turkle points out "development of trust and self-esteem and the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy" are qualities we gain through talking to each other, not through a screen.
A long hard day out there may require us to think creatively about conversation starters to avoid the tried and tested "how was your day/monosyllabic response" script that we know too well. Some nice conversation openers are "Tell me a happy/funny/crazy/interesting/sad/disappointing thing that happened today" "Tell me two real things and one made up thing that happened and I have to guess" "What did you do at break time today." "What colour dress was your teacher wearing." Remember conversations are a two-way street, we have to listen and we have to share too!
Limit screen time when friends come round. Obviously it doesn't have to be a no go zone but it also doesn't have to be in endless supply.
We need to be more conscious about what we are doing. I can report that my phone now sleeps in the kitchen. I cannot report on the morning restorative and energising yoga postures quite yet.