First of all, if you’ve read the book I referenced and think that it’s full of crap, I can only speak for the first 5-6 chapters, the ones relevant to my own and my kids’ lives. I didn’t read past that because we don’t play video games and will never allow them in our house, my kids are not in public school yet, and my kids don’t watch TV. At the moment I’m much more concerned with the prevalence of tablets and smartphones, and with the tendency for parents to give them to younger and younger children, than I am with television or video games. They’re just not parts of our lives yet.
I know there’s been a significant backlash to this book, and to every one like it ever published. “They said TV would rot your brain 60 years ago, and we’re fine.” “Millennials have grown up on the Internet, and we’re fine.” “Calling smartphones ‘heroin’ is just an attempt to scare parents.”
Are you fine, though? Think back to 2008 or 2009. You almost definitely didn’t have a smartphone. If we’re peers, you were probably in college. Now think about how long you typically spent reading at that time. How long could you sit and write? How long could you concentrate on a lab experiment, a classroom discussion, a conversation with a friend, or a sunset? What did you “do” when you were walking to class, waiting in line, or cooking dinner? And what did you “do” when you were stopped at a red light, laying in bed at night, or (for real) sitting on the toilet?
You didn’t reach for a phone. My point is that, if you’re like me, the internet has wriggled its tentacles into all of those little empty spaces, displacing time we used to spend listening to music, reading a book, chatting, or just staring into space daydreaming, planning, fantasizing, and thinking. Given an empty few minutes, I find myself scrolling Facebook, skimming the news, jumping through online articles, or virtually window-shopping for crap I don’t need. My mental stamina has plunged to almost nil. I find myself feeling “bored” more than I used to, and instead of using my brain to deal with that boredom, I use a screen. Instead of taking up that space with my own thoughts, I use content generated by other people (and companies). The way that my brain works has changed.
Are these changes inherently bad? Maybe not for you personally. But they make me very, very uncomfortable. I feel dissatisfied with myself. The first time you realize that you just started looking at Instagram while sitting outside watching your kids play is a sobering moment. Do I need to be staring at my children all of the time? No, of course not! But I could be setting a better example by opening a book, or enjoying genuine mental relaxation by just letting my mind wander. The constant flow of novel content is not actually relaxing, and you know that perfectly well from how you feel after laying in bed with your phone before trying to sleep.
So are books like this one an attempt to scare you? Yes, because many of us need to be scared. Think about how much your brain changed just since having access to the internet. Now think about how much more it has changed since the internet came to live in your pocket. Now think about kids who are handed devices when they’re 12, 8, 5, even in toddlerhood and infancy. Their brains don’t get the chance to develop normally in the first place. Think about how much they’ll struggle to concentrate on anything–and that’s leaving aside how they will (because they definitely will) struggle with age-inappropriate content and social media.
I am not the most uptight parent, but screen time is where I’ve drawn an absolutely immovable line that won’t budge until my children are adults. My kids do not get “iPad time.” They aren’t allowed to touch our phones. They won’t get smartphones while they live in our home. They’ve never seen a movie. They don’t know what “Paw Patrol” or “PJ Masks” are. And I’m glad. In ten or fifteen years (in fact, probably in one or two years), it won’t matter whether they’ve seen “Frozen” or know who Big Bird is. It will matter what they were doing instead.
“Our job as parents is to have the long view, because children don’t.”
This is where other parents always get mad at me. I had written several paragraphs about why and how you should make and keep your kids screen-free, but I deleted them, because I don’t think I personally can change anyone’s mind about this. Suffice it to say that if you feel harshly judged and cruelly targeted by someone saying kids shouldn’t spend time on screens, then you definitely need to read more on this topic.
Many, many reviews of this and other books repeatedly use the phrase “fear-mongering.” Even if that were true, and the consequences of screen use and overuse aren’t actually very dire… what about that gets people so riled up? Is there something bad or harmful about not using screens? The answer to that question is an emphatic no, so I don’t understand why efforts to curb screen usage, especially in children, make some people so frothily angry. Scratch that, I do know why. There are three big reasons:
- Money. If you do work that profits from people overusing screens, then of course you don’t want to reverse that trend.
- Selfishness. You like to diddle your phone and you don’t want anyone batting it out of your hand. Or, you like having your kid(s) “occupied” on screens and don’t want anyone making you do more hands-on parenting.
- Guilt. You know it’s a problem and the natural human response to being told we are wrong is to get mad.
So go ahead and call it fear-mongering if that comforts you, but you’re only harming yourself and your family by pretending that screen-time is healthy.
I’m trying HARD to change how I use the internet and in particular my phone. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about switching away from a smartphone, but I am too worried about running into major hurdles because of how app-centric our lives have become. I need an app to sign my kids in to school. I need an app to pick up my groceries. I even need an app to turn off my debit card if it gets stolen! At this late date, I don’t think going “dumbphone” is practicable. But I am determined to use my phone as little as possible. I’ve removed all ways to listen and read on it. I’ve removed all apps that steal my time. I’ve turned off all notifications and set a long daily Do Not Disturb time with a text auto-reply.
I wish that I could completely opt out, but it feels impossible, so willpower is the only tool we’ve got.
Here are things I’ve been reading and listening to:
Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
Deep Work by Cal Newport
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
Irresistible by Adam Alter
The Ezra Klein Show: this episode & this episode
Jaron Lanier speaking here
And countless other interviews with and articles about authors, thinkers, and “eccentrics” who shun overuse of the internet. I accessed everything above for free.