Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You screen, I screen...

When I get up in the morning I make coffee, then sit on a sofa in the living room in the dark for a while. These days I listen to the hiss of the heat coming up, the wind over the river, and the swish of traffic on the highway below. The lights from the bridge twinkle a quarter-mile away.

My laptop sits nearby, two small lights gleaming like snake eyes, enticing me to open it. My rule is that I cannot open it until after I have drunk my coffee. First things first: silence helps my brain settle and gets me focused for the day. If it weren't that 5:30-7:30am is my best working time, I'd avoid turning on the computer entirely until about 11am. Life is just better that way. Or I'm better off that way. Or something.

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I'm not an early-adaptor of technology. Back when cell phones were first popular I was on a bus with my kids when one of them asked, "Mommy, why don't you get a cell phone?" I replied, "Because I'm not important enough that anyone needs to reach me all the time." Half the bus turned around to stare. The truth is few of us need cell phones; we've simply grown accustomed to the sense of connectedness and safety they provide. Our tolerance for not-knowing has been stunted: we want to know where people are all the time. We would have made really lousy settlers 150 years ago.

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Our family has never had cable TV. We don't have live television, either, since we live in a part of the city with no reception. The no-TV thing is kind of a cultural Grand Canyon between us and many other people. I once wrote a devotional about the effect not-watching TV has on my spiritual life, but it was rejected because the topic was considered too off-putting. The editor feared people would feel criticized if I admitted I don't watch TV.

I don't really care if other people watch TV. But I don't think TV should be a pre-requisite for membership in the "I Live A Normal Life" Club, either. If we're going to celebrate diversity and all that, we can celebrate diversity in TV use, no?

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Andrew says that going no-TV was the best parenting decision we ever made. It's certainly the fastest way to reduce the impact of commercialism on kids. Now with computers the way they are, being TV-less is almost a non-event. One can open one's veins to pop culture and become a screen addict using a variety of electronic drugs.

We've seen some erosion in screen control over the past two years; Big Guy bought a DS and Dancer bought an iPod and a Wii. It's harder to enforce that a screen is a screen is a screen when there are so many different kinds in the house. But the biggest impact on screen time comes from having parents who spend more time in front of a screen than not. To a kid, it doesn't always matter if you're doing work or browsing around. You're still focused on a screen instead of him. It makes a difference.

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Part of my lack of affection for screens arises from their convenience. While I enjoy convenience as much as anyone else, inconvenience has its benefits: it makes us stop and think. Decades ago I went to a women's college, where I realized that if I wanted a social life that included members of the opposite sex, I had to consider what kind of men I wanted to meet and where they were likely to be. That required an intentionality that I'd never considered before. I couldn't just fall into a relationship with the guy down the hall, because there were none.

When things are massively convenient (think Amazon One-Click) we often act with far less forethought than when we have to do a little more work. When entertainment is readily available, we veer off and indulge ourselves instead of doing something creative. I sometimes wonder what impact large quantities of readily-available screen time will have on the number of kids who take up instruments, or become artists or amazing chefs. It's hard to get in your 10,000 hours of practice if you're spending six hours a day in front of a screen.


  1. I thought I was the only person in the world who felt they weren't important enough to have a cell least that's what I said when they came out. I do like having one in my pocket for emergencies now.

  2. I enjoyed this post, Julia.

    The insidious thing about technology is that, once everyone gets it, you become antisocial if you resist getting it or if you seriously limit it. You probably know me well enough, Julia, to know I have some Luddite tendencies. But they are personal tendencies, not moral ones.

    But I confess that the computer is my weak point, because you can find almost anything you want on it!

    I still remember what caused us to get cell phones. Bob and I got separated at the Macy's Balloon blow up and each of us eventually decided just to go home. But we were each worried that the other wouldn't leave. Gee, this wasn't even that long ago!

    I like the 10,000 hours point. I got in some good hours as a teen, and it's happening with my teen as well. As John Taylor Gatto says, a teen needs some hours alone to fashion a self.

  3. I'm not sure if I have Luddite tendencies or if I am just very focused on allowing myself space and time to be me. One of the harder concepts I've tried explaining to my kids is that I want to be as Julia as God created me to be... and that means forgoing certain alluring rabbit trails (and oh, I love rabbit trails!) that can take me away from that. Whatever else I can find with Google, I can't find my purpose in life -- and I probably can't live it out online.

    We got cell phones in the wake of Big Guy's first hospitalization. I realized I didn't want to be on a street corner with five children in tow, one of whom was in crisis, and not be able to reach my husband. :(

  4. Another thought...

    Several years ago, while Eldest was in the Girls Math contest, I hear Richard Rusczyk (founder of speak. He'd been asked to sit on some high-powered committee to identify action steps to improve performance in STEM subjects. When asked to name ONE thing they thought would have the greatest impact, every person on the committee identified exactly the same thing: allowing kids free time to explore their intellectual passions.

    But I wonder if nowadays those bright, intellectually curious kids would spend their time doing that, or if they'd spend it wandering about on the 'net.