Screen Time and Our Children Ourselves

November 11, 2018

Dear Family,

Amidst the Chaos and The Election and So Much Troubling News (not to mention my family’s first-world-style personal housing insecurity), I spent this week mustering gratitude.

My family is collectively at this moment just about the healthiest they have ever been. For the past month and a half I have awoken nonplussed almost every morning: NOBODY is whining or crying or miserable! It is so indescribably fantastic. (It has been a really long nearly-15 years…) It makes me realize: having kids can be so much fun! This state of improved health is allowing us to do so many more activities all day and all week long. I am driving around like a freaking Uber driver (but with even lower wages), and it’s worth it: I get to watch Eliza climb sheer rock faces and learn to belay, I hear Jem exclaim with excitement about the blues song he wrote in class, I see Ben interact with his peers and grow into his unique teenage skin, and sometimes I view a special outdoor dance performance choreographed by Ivy, just for me.

So many times recently I have reflected: I am SO LUCKY to have four children! They’re such interesting and wonderful humans!

So much of our lives is dictated by our gut flora.

But I didn’t sit down to write about gut flora. No, I am currently pondering the topic of Screen Time for kids. As I mentioned, in our family we currently have a relatively full schedule of classes and activities, as well as a nice amount of down time, and of course an overflowing list of Things We Want To Do But Don’t Have Time For. And, right now, we allow very limited screen time for young folks in the Amaral Matilsky home. We sometimes look up information online, Ben looks up camera equipment reviews with Grandpa and uploads his photos to google photos, the kids use Kindle for their piano music (and Ben has a kindle for reading library books), Ben and Jem have e-mail accounts for writing to family and friends (plus access to a word-processing program for typing/writing practice), we listen to music on the iPad, and occasionally we watch a movie or a documentary or some such. Oh, and don’t forget the toothbrush timer! But the kids are always supervised, and never get to freely watch TV or Youtube or join social media or play games.

Up until recently, I would have told you that we had a zero-screen-time policy. I would have explained how, in a homeschooling environment where my kids are in charge of so much of their own time, I want to offer them the unusual (in 2018, in the USA) chance to interact directly with the world around them, unmediated by a Device. Further, I would have explained eloquently, different people have different levels of susceptibility toward the addictive activities so easy to pursue online. I like to think that in our family, we aren’t training the kids to mindlessly fill up their time when they’re bored or anxious or seeking a dopamine hit. But although many of these things I believe to be true, the kids actually do use screens daily - not to mention how “screens” are the tool Jeff uses to earn our entire income! “The kids are very limited, though,” I will still explain, virtuously…

If I’m truthful, I want to limit my kids’ screen time because of the exceptional amount of self control it appears to take in order for me to balance my _own_ use of devices - so much so that I’m sure no child should have to figure out how to manage the attention-stealing influences of same until a fairly advanced age.

I am of the unique generation I recently heard described as having experienced “an analog childhood and a digital adulthood.” When I was little, we had no computer games. Our phone was boringly tethered to the wall. When we were bored, or curious about something, we had much less instant gratification than Siri now provides. We did not have Facebook, or instagram, or games that allowed us to vanquish the world and explore alternate realities and communicate with people on other continents. It was so annoying to check the weather back then! And the flashlight’s D batteries were always dying. And if the timer stopped working, we had to use the clock. When we made an appointment with somebody, we never said, “I’ll let you know when I’m half an hour away, and we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do!” On the other hand, since my parents got rid of the television in ’83 and rarely took us to movie theaters, we had a whole lot of time for needlepoint and gardening and listening to the radio. Ha ha, I’m not even joking! (Except I am quite grateful for the extra time - thanks, Mom and Dad!) But even for my peers whose parents did own a television, there still wasn’t so much to grab ones attention as there is now, because there wasn’t nearly So Much Content. (I imagine parents in the 1950s had similar complaints to make about the popularization of television; who knows what they’d think about Content of such copious magnitude as today!)

In my analog childhood, I didn’t have an individualized and tantalizing array of Digital Delights on offer, instantly, catering to every base desire for gossip and connection and news and ideas and information and entertainment. Which makes it sound like I’m passing judgement on the desires themselves, but these aren’t exactly new. Desiring all these things must have been useful for our ancient ancestors, who undoubtedly grew their brains and had more capable and fit offspring as a result of taking advantage of every opportunity possible for furthering their social and educational development. Then they passed such ambitious desires on down to us. But now, those same cave-person brain-processes are utilized when we examine a modern cell phone…and without careful engagement of the forebrain, addiction is effortless.……

So, while plenty of research is currently underway to explore the ways that screens and phones and social media and gaming and entertainment and advertising are affecting our youth, I have a really simple reason for proactively limiting screen time for our kids: I haven’t nearly figured out how to effectively monitor my own use of my own phone, even with the resources of my own supposedly mature adult brain.

I want to use my phone, and not feel used by it. Years ago, Jeff and I read a great book called “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology,” by Eric Brende. Brende writes that during the year he and his wife spent living off-the-grid with the Amish, they never abandoned technology - rather, they attempted to differentiate (as the Amish do) between technology-as-machine and technology-as-tool.

The other day, after spending several hours in a haze of small, annoying online research projects, distracted phone calls, constantly-interrupted music, math, and reading lessons with the kids, attention-grabbing news headlines in my browser, comforting texts to a friend coupled with annoying logistical texts to decide something with somebody else that seemed really complex at the time but turned out to be extremely forgettable even in the short term, more checks of the weather and e-mail than strictly made sense considering the short span of time involved…I finally noticed my anxious heart rate and contracted neck muscles and thought: what the hell just happened to my morning?

Where had I been? What was the point? Why was I even doing any of the things which filled that morning, if they led to the sensation of intense dissociation I was currently experiencing? It wasn’t just that I needed to have had less “screen time” - I was trying to quell an entire Screen Time Mind Storm.

Of course, that morning was a bit extreme, but not uncommonly so, if I’m honest. How often does using my device disrupt all other pursuits in a haphazard way that leaves me feeling slightly dirty and wondering how my attention could have been hijacked for an hour or two or three by a small beeping hunk of metal and plastic and genius? How often does Checking My Phone supersede other pursuits not due to priorities I’ve set, but Because It’s There? Are my devices working for me, helping me nurture community, creativity, grounded relationships, and learning…or are they interrupting my interactions with real live people around me? It’s truly all of those things, and so many other nuanced permutations, but it’s not a 50/50 split. More like 30/70. On some days I feel great about the way technology enables certain great life experiences; most other times, I feel like my phone use distracts me from more important and fun things. Usually, the times I feel great about my phone use are on days when I simply don’t have time for silly distractions, because a lot of interesting things are going on. But surely there must be a way to change up the Quiet Home Days too, since they’re much more ubiquitous, and I don’t want Enormous Busyness to be the only thing capable of tearing me away from my little screen. I’d like to gently pursue joy in the simpler, less flashy tasks in front of me - the stuff of which life is comprised, the philosophers note, if only we Live In The Moment clearly enough to notice them - which are so important for feeding the human psyche. Except so often, on Home Days: The Aforementioned Storm.

A day later, I was chatting about all this with two friends, and I had a sudden epiphany: why not just keep my phone in my purse all afternoon? This tiny decision led to lots of time that day spent actually interacting with other humans, including my children, and a lot less brain-muddling busy-ness.

This led me to try to reevaluate the Rules. Should I limit my screen time to fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the evening? Is it enough to curtail phone use at mealtimes, or are there other times when it’s equally disruptive to the development of leisurely social interaction? How do I identify these times? Should I make absolute rules like I do for the kids? How, I wondered, do we tame the User who resides in us all?

It seems quite legitimate to give up at this point, and forget about limiting a child’s (let alone ones own) access to something that is so nebulously detrimental, even while it’s so often useful. Why can’t we just stop thinking about it and hope for the best??

Maybe we can. Perhaps many people do it with great success. And yet that approach doesn’t feel right to me, because all this technology deserves a lot more respect than simply hoping that ignoring the complexity will magically lead us to counteract habits and impulses honed by millions of years of evolution.

It should be obvious by now that I do not have all the answers for my kids regarding Best Practices For Use of Devices, nor How To Best Interact with our exploding Virtual World. Instead, I acknowledge how, with 24/7 access to incredible amounts of information, comes an absolute responsibility: a person literally must decide (or decide to give up the choice to decide, whether by not setting limits, or allowing advertisers to manipulate their clicks, or by allowing Interesting Articles to link to Just One More Interesting Article, or by any number of other enticing means) not only how much time to devote to The Devices, but once that decision has been made, whether to access a given resource at any given moment. Even if one chooses to spend every waking hour accessing a preferred media outlet or utilizing a favorite online tool, one STILL won’t get to it all. No matter whether a person spends 6 minutes or 6 hours or 16 hours per day online, that person must Curate and Make Choices and Decide or Decide Not To.

Which is super annoying: who wants to take a moment of mindfulness every time the urge strikes to go check the weather, or the e-mail, or the text notification, or the wikipedia entry, or the news, or the TwitterInstaFaceBookGram? That’s so freaking annoying! Why do great privileges always become so fraught with freaking great responsibilities??

Maybe the limits I set for our kids are an attempt at gifting them just a bit more of the childhood naivete fairy dust: I’m taking on some of the annoying responsible Decision Making so they can hone mindfulness in more straightforward ways. I’m trying to counteract the inevitable manipulation my kids will face by the glittery digital world, and since the pockmarked Regular World already offers so many challenges, a gradual introduction to the useful internet seems reasonable. For now, I think childhood is best spent exploring the world off-screen; also inevitably, my kids will choose their own paths through our fabulously complicated and joyful and terrifying world (this comes so quickly!). For now, I try to help my kids get comfortable enough in their skins so that someday their devices will become tools for them, rather than ruling their lives.

Tomorrow is my birthday - and I commit to taking a split second to ponder, each time I reach for the little purple-encased miracle device: Do I REALLY Want To Pick Up This Phone? I wish myself luck in this task, and wisdom to boot. I wish myself honesty to notice when I’m just mindlessly hoping for a Hit. I give myself permission to deal efficiently with the super annoying phone call to the insurance company, because these are tasks of life that must not be ignored; but perhaps if I’m lucky I shall limit these calls to a Small Proportion of The Day and Dwell Lightly on The Sordid Ordeal Afterward, Amen. I wish to enjoy the amazing ways that my phone allows me to connect with friends and family long-distance, and to learn about fascinating topics and people and ideas. And I make a radical vow: I shall put the phone down sometimes, before the Dirty Feelings begin, and look around myself with wide, 39-year-old eyeballs, at the amazing world beyond my screen.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bye! :)