I often wonder if people feel the same way I do when it comes to technology: overburdened by the constant hum of news and notifications and emails, and yet unable to fully detach from it.
I think back on my own childhood, and how different it was from my own child’s now. When I came in after school, my mother wasn’t mindlessly scrolling on her cell phone. When my father came home from work, he didn’t immediately crack open his laptop and start poring over it. My first inclination when I got home wasn’t to jump on the Nintendo switch or an iPad; it was to go outside, round up some neighborhood friends, and hop on our bikes. We’d run from house to house, frequenting one another’s swing sets, or shoot hoops in the driveway. We’d jump rope and use our skip-its, play hopscotch, play some pick up soccer or lacrosse. Our parents encouraged us to be outside, most likely because they wanted us out of their hair, but also because it was good for us.
Things have certainly changed. The devices which have such a hold over us currently, simply didn’t exist in my childhood, at least not in the vast quantities that they do now. Cell phones were few and far between, and children certainly did not carry them. If the family had a computer, it was a desktop unit, generally stored in an office or tucked away in a basement, and shared by all members of the family. While Nintendo and SEGA were around, they weren’t used on a daily basis but rather on lazy weekend mornings, and perhaps during a sleepover. Tablets did not exist. Cell phones in their current capacities did not exist. Our technology was not portable; it stayed wired in a primary location, limiting one’s access to it.
Nowadays, it’s common for each family member to have their own device, or even multiple devices. It’s not unusual for an adult to have a cell phone, a laptop, and a tablet all to themself. Children may also have a multitude of devices. Devices often outnumber the amount of family members living in the home. They are omnipresent, always in the background. Always humming. Always within arm’s reach.
I am guilty of constant scrolling, I often find it almost impossible to disconnect. Technology is addictive in nature. Once you get hooked you want more and more and more. Some make the argument that they must stay connected, that they have to be up-to-date on the latest breaking news. Yet thirty years ago, we seemed to manage just fine without the constant inundation of stories. If something important happened, you found out. Whether it was in the paper or on the nightly news, you found out sooner or later. And no one seemed anxious about not having 24/7 access to what was going on in the world.
Today the world is literally at your fingertips. A quick Google search can lead to a slew of information on any topic imaginable. Smart phones provide continuous access to news media in real time. Social media apps are constantly streaming the lives of our friends, family members, and even people we don’t know but have an obsessive fascination with, like celebrities and “influencers”. Stuff that wasn’t newsworthy decades ago is news of some sort now, and it’s fed to us on a proverbial platter. We have grown addicted to the dopamine hit of having immediate, continuous access to whatever media we want.
What troubles me most about this is the effect that it has on our children. Technology can be escapist in nature; it allows us to remove ourselves from our own reality and focus on something else. We are raising a generation of children who would rather sit inside staring at a screen than explore the great outdoors. Whether it be a television, a tablet, a cellphone, a handheld video game…. it’s all the same. A screen. An alternate reality. Proponents of tech will argue that these screens are interactive, allowing children to converse with their peers, to flex their brain, to discover things they might not otherwise have access to. But what of the addictiveness, the isolation, the self-doubt and paranoia that they can foster? Why not play with a real-life friend outside? Why not discover nature? Why not get lost in the experience of physical play?
Children are not playing the way they did thirty years ago. Outdoor play has taken a backseat to tech play. Even indoor toy play seems less preferable to screen time. Who could blame our children? If we, as rational adults are addicted to technology and screens, why would we expect our children, with their brains still malleable and impressionable, to behave any differently? Children will seek out that dopamine hit just as much as their parents will.
Technology of this sort is also easy from a physical standpoint. It doesn’t require real stamina or bodily effort. While a gaming marathon might require some mental endurance, it doesn’t strain your muscles in the way that climbing a tree might. It’s easier to scroll through Instagram for twenty minutes than it is is to go for a twenty minute jog. Technology requires less of us, of our bodies, yet it steals from us at the same time. Although you might not realize it, the constant buzz of the media and screens and information does wear on you. You might feel fatigued even though your body exerted very little physical energy in consuming it.
How can we begin to quiet all of this noise? How can we prevent our children from becoming addicted, or reversing addiction if they already are? The irony of Googling “how to disconnect from technology” is not lost on me. I would argue however, that it begins at home, with us. It would be hypocritical of me to attempt to limit my child’s access without limiting my own. Leading by example is generally a good course of action. Before addressing my child’s addiction, I must address my own. I must sever the imaginary cord between me and the media. If I want my child to get outside, then I must go outside. If I want my child to have a childhood like I had, full of outdoor play and experiences in nature, then I must guide her down that path. We cannot expect our children to know what to do if living in the tech bubble is all they have ever known. We cannot begrudge them their addictions when we are the ones who got them addicted in the first place.
Certainly, technology is not all bad, and it is not my intention to argue as such. However I do believe there is a case to be made for limiting our children’s and our own access to devices that are constantly distracting and removing us from the present moment. A recent morning drive led me to witness an interesting phenomena: middle and high schoolers at school bus stops. The teens did not appear to converse with one another, but all stood or sat in a row, with a few feet of distance between each student. Their posture was all the same: head bowed, staring at a glowing screen. I must have passed six stops, and the image was eerily similar. No joking around, no chit chatting. Just staring at their phones, fully engulfed in whatever was being displayed. I wasn’t surprised by what I saw, but I was saddened by it.
Screen addiction is the norm rather than the exception these days, and it can be hard to reconcile making changes in your own life when everyone around you is maintaining the status quo. But change can begin with you, in your own home, with your own family, should you choose to do so. I for one am over being addicted, and ready to start refocusing on my off-screen life.