Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Smart phones can help manage the tedium of parenting. But they also isolate us from a lot of the joy.
We almost all have touch screen electronic devices these days, but the latest must-have accessory among middle-class parents isn’t something you can hold. It is our well-meaning angst about the effect such devices -- smart phones and tablets and the like -- have on the minds of developing children. Hanna Rosin’s piece in this month’s Atlantic, “The Touch-Screen Generation,” lays out all the fears and questions, along with the latest research. You can find other smart people worrying about it here and here, and a lot of other places besides.
Rosin doesn’t provide a definitive answer because there isn't one yet, but she leaves you thinking that in the end, most kids can probably learn and grow just fine with access to touchpad devices, the same way they have been learning and growing through all of the other technological revolutions of human history. Which seems sensible enough to me.
What I’m worried about is the parents.
The other day, I saw a mother in my Brooklyn neighborhood push the thousand-dollar stroller containing her toddler directly into a tree.
The woman had been gazing at her phone as she rolled along the sidewalk, slowly but surely veering off course. I was too far away to stop her. I also have to admit to a certain fascination as I watched the scene unfold.
Startled by the mild impact (which didn’t seem to disturb the kid at all) she looked up from her screen and we locked eyes. I glanced away as quickly as I could, but her expression could be summed up in one word: busted.
When my son was born, in 2002, there were no smart phones or tablets. Heck, there wasn’t even Facebook. I read The New York Review of Books during marathon breastfeeding sessions, absorbing nothing, simply because there were so many words on every spread that I didn’t have to turn the page very often. Oh yeah, and I looked at him sometimes, too. He was really kind of amazing.
I whiled away the numbing tedium of my son’s early years on the playground by looking at him, looking into space, and looking at my watch. Also, chatting with countless other parents and caregivers who were also bored out of their skulls.
Sometimes those conversations were fun, and sometimes I learned something – maybe about parenting, maybe about whether the new restaurant around the corner was worth trying. One time, when I was working as a magazine editor, I struck up an acquaintance with a freelance writer while we watched our kids play in the sprinklers. She turned out to be really great, and I gave her a bunch of assignments in the next few months.
But most of the talks I had were fleeting, unmemorable, content-free, and even awkward. I chafed under the enforced social interactions.
The alternative, interacting with the kids, could also wear thin. I grew tired of playing the monster who chased the 4-year-olds endlessly around the jungle gym. I loved being a parent, of course, as I reminded myself and everyone else constantly. But it was really, really boring sometimes.
And yet. A couple of weeks ago, I passed the playground where my son and his friends once shouted “More! More!” to goad me into running after them one last time. It’s been years, now, since those afternoons felt like they would go on forever. The grown-ups in the park were all sitting on the benches looking bored, the way I used to. Except that now, instead of talking to each other while looking absently at their kids running around, they were all staring at their phones, their heads bent in that familiar posture.
I found myself thinking: Thank god I didn’t have one of those things when my kid was that age. I never would have been the monster. And being the monster was really its own kind of fun.
At my son’s baseball practice in Prospect Park last week, I was hoping to get to know some of the other parents. But it was cold, and the only one who stuck around besides me was watching a show on her iPad the whole time. It must have been really funny, because she laughed out loud several times. I, in the meantime, tried to count how many robins were looking for worms on the field. I only got as far as “a lot.”
Also, I noticed that my kid looked pretty good out there, shagging flies.
I do own a smart phone these days, and like a lot of people, I find it takes a major effort to stop myself from checking it every other second for the latest text or email or tweet or Facebook update. My son, who likes screens of all sorts as much as any human being, calls me on it sometimes.
“Do you think it would have been a problem if I had an iPhone when you were little? If I had been looking at it all the time while we were at the playground?” I ask him.
“Definitely,” he says. “It was much more healthy for you to talk to the other parents.”
We have a good relationship, me and my kid, and he’s not shy about telling me now and then that he would like it better if I wasn’t always checking my phone. I know he’s right. I’m rarely looking at anything that couldn’t wait. He’s right there in front of me, and he is waiting. I promise to try to do better. Then I slip the thing back out of my pocket when I think he’s not paying attention.
He is, though.
“Mom, put the phone away and let’s talk,” he says.
“About what?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Nothing,” he says.
And so we do. I put the phone away for real, and we talk about nothing. It’s really great.