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Challenge: Kids and Technology

Plugged In, Tuned Out: The Importance of Presence in a Teched Out World

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Lately, in the car, at the gym, or on a long morning walk I've begun listening to PodCasts, specifically those of Tim Ferris (The 4- Hour Workweek) and James Altucher (The Power of No). I began exploring PodCasts when I developed a debilitating fear that having a baby and, consequently, a semester-long maternity leave, would melt my intellectual and academic brain. This seemed like a way that I could nurture that side of myself, be able to engage in conversations about more than just breast pumps and sleep deprivation, and still dive headfirst into motherhood.

I have never not been a learner, a thinker, a reader…a student of something. When I first began to experience the forewarned brain-fog early in my pregnancy (several times a day I would find myself in a room, with no idea why I was there or how I got there. I would also trail off mid-sentence on the phone, often forgetting who was on the line.) I immediately thought, “Well, here it goes! I'm getting dumber by the minute!” I was convinced I would lose all those brain cells I worked so hard to nurture through a BA and MA, through years of teaching and learning, through hours of paper writing and literature analyzing, philosophy exploring, debating and knowing what is going on in the world. Instead, I was convinced my mental capacity would be focused on feeding, sleeping and diaper schedules, solutions for colic, and a Masters Degree in cry-decoding. Sure enough, that’s exactly where most of my mental energy goes these days. Case in point: last night, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and spent the rest of the night mostly pondering which baby monitor I should buy to replace the hand-me-down monitor that emits a repetative shrill beep at random intervals for no apparent reason other than to keep me on my toes, or more accurately, on the ceiling.

I am also a TedTalk devotee, as my students would tell you. A database of free lectures on anything you can think of?! Interesting, interactive, provocative, contemplative, often controversial speakers?! Can you say Dreamy Friday Night? (Do I even need to tell you here that I might be a little bit of a nerd?) However, I've found that with the shape my life has taken, listening to PodCasts is more efficient, which brings me to my choice of casts to which I listen. Both Ferris and Altucher talk a lot about efficiency. Not so much about cramming more into each day, but doing what we do in the most time effective manner, minimizing distractions, deleting the unnecessary, while maximizing happiness, joy, doing things worthwhile, and making the choice to create a life that supports those things.

I was on my way to visit my mom in Billings, MT when I first heard Ferris utter these words, one of his mantras which he repeats in much of his speaking and writing: "Time is not a renewable resource." I immediately pushed 'pause' on the PodCast and had to pull into a parking lot to double over from the sucker-punch that had been delivered to my lower abdomen as those words sunk in all the way to my bones. A sense of panic built from this dull ache and spread to my limbs as I thought about how I spent my days, weeks, months, and years. My father died at the young age of 44, so the poignancy I felt was perhaps some form of latent PTSD, but I had to ask myself: How much time had I wiled away on the dumbest things? When I thought about the mountains of time in my life's rear-view mirror that I'd spent mindlessly channel surfing, gossiping, responding to comments or emails that need no response, jumping from online feed(bag) to online feed, really learning nothing and certainly not contributing, I wanted to scream. Regret was instinctual, but then I thought, “That’s another waste of time! Arg!” I was trapped in my car and paralyzed by a mad desire to do something Meaningful with a capital 'M'. During the rest of the five-hour drive from Missoula to Billings I thought, with inspired excitement, how I would take those words to heart.

The funny thing about my life, however, is its very clever way of regularly making me eat my own words.

I was sucker-punched again yesterday.

We had spent the weekend at my mother’s cabin in the woods of Northwestern Montana, going out on the lake in the boat, cooking on a campfire, all while blissfully removed from technology, as the only way to communicate with the outside world is via a landline. I am wildly introverted, so I love being able to say, “Sorry, we weren't in cell service,” when I return phone calls or emails. The kids were sunburned and tired, but in that happy, punch-drunk way as we made it back to our house in Missoula. After unpacking, grocery fetching, and getting ready for the week ahead, I took Norah to her room with the intention of playing with her and letting her stretch out in the air conditioning. I sat her on the floor and scattered her toys around her. She began to grab rattles and rings, talking to each one in her sweet, tiny, babbling Muppet voice. I dug my iPhone out of my pocket and proceeded to check emails, Twitter, Facebook.

I was midway through responding to a Facebook message when I felt it, the skin on my neck prickled as something severe dawned on me, submerging me in shame as never before. If there were a hidden camera in Norah’s room, it would have captured this scene: a six-month old baby sits, her hands resting on her toys, but not playing with them. She looks at her mother’s blank face which is tilted downward, then at the glowing object in her mother’s hands, then at her mother’s face again. She smiles and flaps her arms to try to get her mother’s attention, since, in her six months of life, a smile and arm flapping has always elicited a response. She whimpers after getting nowhere. The mother sits close to her baby, but so far removed, engrossed, instead, in something on the tiny screen in her hands.


How awful. If I had been watching that scene, I would be disgusted with the mother. How embarrassing.

So embarrassing that I hesitate to even write about it here. But I do so in hopes of holding myself to a higher standard. What’s ironic is that my husband would tell you that I (much to his annoyance) never have my phone’s sound turned on. I hate the sound of it ringing and the text tone and the calendar invites; those noises cause instant stress for me, as though my secret lair has been discovered and will soon be invaded by outsiders. It’s also ironic that we are so quick pat ourselves on the back for keeping the TV off when Norah is in the family room. We don’t allow cell phones at our dinner table, either. I've even thrown my students’ cell phones out of my 3rd story classroom window (into the soft grassy courtyard, I'm not a sadist!), demanding that they engage in the here and now (parents do not appreciate this, FYI). The final irony is that I know better. I turn my phone off at restaurants and on airplanes, why wouldn't it be off when playing with my own child? But there I sat, nearby but definitely not present, caught red-handed by my own conscience. A hypocrite. My worst fear had come true—my brain cells had indeed melted...specifically, the ones that control common sense.

Time is not a renewable resource.

We do not have unlimited minutes or hours on this planet. We don't get "do-overs" on misspent days like in the movie Groundhog's Day. We cannot bank wasted time or time spent doing the most unfulfilling things. We are doled an allowance of days, of breaths, and that's that. The scene above could have just as easily happened as one of my friends or family members talked to me, or needed my attention. It happens all around us, constantly.

Besides thinking about a baby monitor at 2:30 this morning, I thought long and hard about what kind of daughter I want to raise and about how my examples will influence her. I want to raise a daughter who pays attention, who listens, who engages in her world and with those around her, who makes eye contact, who smiles when smiled at. I want to raise a daughter who is interested and interesting. I want to raise a daughter who is not validated by digital “likes” alone. I want to raise a daughter who believes she is far more worth her mother’s time than her phone, her iPad, her computer screen, or the TV. While it's not feasible or even desirable to raise Norah in a tech-free zone, especially with two teenagers in our house, and especially with the amazing things technology will allow her to do in her lifetime, it is possible to teach her that these things do not replace, or replicate, real life; that they are merely tools and that they serve a purpose, much like a washing machine or a coffee maker. But it's only possible to teach this through example: by tuning in to those who are important to me, in real time.

This is not a diatribe about the evils of technology. Steve Jobs, a master of efficiency himself, along with Apple, HP, Android, handheld wi-fi, social networking and the rest have made our world a different place overnight; I can say that the availability of information has drastically changed the teaching profession for me and others. What we can do with these tiny computers is mind-boggling and wonderful, but at the same time terrifying. This is a diatribe about finding balance. There are times, and there will be more, when my attention will be divided between Norah and something I need to get done or someone I need to get in touch with. There will be times during the day when I want to foster my intellect and read the news or the blogs I follow, and there are times when tuning out and giving myself a rest is exactly what I need, but that is different than mindlessly paging through Facebook while claiming to be spending time with my daughter (or whomever I'm spending time with). Yes, this example is small in the grand scheme; none of our kids are anywhere near being neglected, but it was significant enough to break my heart.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, his sci-fi commentary on the Cold War, on progress, on understanding where we come from, but also eerily and accurately predicting of a future in which human beings are so consumed with media that their relationships, their reality, and their history deteriorates right before their eyes. At one point the hero, Montag, who risks his life by not conforming, whose wife is lost to her addiction to TV screens and sleeping pills, seeks out a philosophical guide, a former professor (an extinct profession in this futuristic society) who pleads with him, encourages him: Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. We have a choice.

I’m also reminded of a news story I stumbled upon late one night, one that still gives me nightmares today: a young father covers his toddler son with a heavy blanket in his crib in hopes he’ll just go to sleep so the father can play video games in peace and quiet. Five hours later, when he goes to check on his son, he finds the toddler has suffocated under the heavy covers. This is an extreme example, of course, but stories like this one, and parents so distracted by “busy-ness” that their children are unintentionally left in hot cars, should make us all pause, gather our loved ones close, and promise to do better, to pay attention, to slow down.

Time is not a renewable resource. Repeat until it sinks in, until you sense the urgency.

This whole experience made me realize the importance of consciously tuning in, living with purpose, on purpose. To be purposeful. Are my intentions reflected in my behavior? For example, if I intend to spend an hour playing with Norah, is that what I'm actually doing? We like to tell ourselves that doing more with our time is the same thing as doing better with our time; which is a misconception. Being productive is all well and good, but time spent doing rewarding things should top our lists by a long shot. Can I pause in my day to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend or must I slosh another latte into a go-cup on my way to work, then text back and forth with that friend sporadically all afternoon? We like to think we're doing more, when in reality the substance is that of horse feathers.

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