Our smartphones, tablets, TVs, and computers are pretty impressive. They’ve become integral parts of our lives and many of us cannot imagine life without them. In the ten years since the debut of the original iPhone and arguably the launch of the smartphone revolution (sorry Palm), our phones have become an extension of ourselves.
Phones have come with many benefits. We are always connected now, getting updates from friends and family constantly. The world is far more connected now, but with that comes downsides. We are also always available and reachable for work. We are constantly buried in our phones, and are far less present as a result.
Out at restaurants, so many people are barely even noticing their food, only even looking at it through the screen of their phone as they post pictures of it. Vacations are even worse. So many of us barely glance at scenery, landmarks, and historical sites as we hurry to compose the perfect picture for Instagram or check in on Facebook so everyone else can see what we are up to. We are more excited about getting notifications for likes than we are to actually see and enjoy the places we are. Our phones are great, but they are taking us away from the important moments.
For parents, phones are a valuable tool. They allow us to communicate with family whenever we want, and to give updates. Facetime allows us to see others we normally cannot see. Children can spend time with grandparents or other family members they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to. Many parents use technology as a crutch though. Phones become the easiest way to calm children throwing tantrums or occupy bored kids whenever some quiet time is needed. These kids become zombies though and it worries me.
As a builder of software and technology, I worry about the effect technology has on my kids often, and I have decided to keep it away from them for as long as possible. I love my phone, and it helps give me flexibility to work from home and spend more time with my kids than I probably would otherwise. But I don’t want them to become addicted to screens like so many children I’ve seen. At a recent doctors visit with the boys, a mother came out of the room with a crying infant. The infant was hardly making a sound, but the second she started getting fussy, the mother quickly passed her phone to the infant who immediately quieted down and focussed in on the screen. The rest of the world immediately vanished to the child. When the mother had to take her phone back to look something up to check out, the child immediately freaked out until the mother hurriedly gave the phone back.
I don’t judge other parents. My philosophy is to do whatever works and whatever it takes to stay sane. As someone in the technology industry though, I don’t want to see this happen to my children. I think the time I spent as a young child occupying myself with rubber bands and paperclips was formative in making me curious about the world and have a longer attention span. The countless hours I spent in the back seat of the car with nothing to occupy myself except for the boring highway scenery and my own imagination gave me patience and creativity. If I had had a tablet to play with, I highly doubt I would have had the same experience and derived the same benefits.
The next time you are on a plane, take a look around. See how many children have their faces buried in screens. Then look at how many are reading books, playing games by themselves or with family, or just sitting quietly by themselves. We’ve quickly become a culture that doesn’t allow boredom. Though the study of boredom is in its early phases, probably because it was never an issue before, early research shows that boredom actually has several benefits. Boredom sparks creativity and inspiration. The mindful meditation movements take inspiration from this, seeking to encourage shutting off the mind and let one wander. The ability to do this is one that is learned and honed as a skill and needs to start young.
I often catch myself falling into my phone while I should be more present with the boys too. During bedtime while they have their bottles, when they are crawling around on the floor, and even during our walks, I sometimes grab my phone and get sucked in when I know I should be spending more time with them and being present in the little moments with them because they won’t last. Even on vacation in new and exciting places I will grab my phone and scroll through Twitter or Instagram in the small moments of downtime. When they see me doing this, it makes it even worse because it shows that that getting absorbed in a screen is normal behavior. I’ve seen enough children already into this mode that then become teenagers and adults stuck this way as well to emulate the same behavior.
Though I respect technology and the improvements it’s made to our lives, notably paying my bills and giving me flexibility to spend more time with the boys, I want to keep it away from them for as long as possible. While I’ll definitely look for STEM encouraging toys for them to spark creativity and passion for learning and building things, I don’t see how watching videos on a phone or tablet will inspire the same. Just as we don’t learn how to build houses from sitting in one, we don’t become great engineers or scientists from using phones. The great software developers I work with didn’t learn technology and design from playing computer games, the majority had active and engaged parents who sparked an interest in how things work and how to build things in them. Capturing that interest and passion is far more important than exposing them to technology. That’s why I’m keeping the screen off around them, putting the phone away, and building puzzles or blocks with them instead.