We were out in the woods, my younger daughter, me and a dozen or so friends, camping with a few thousand other people at a music festival, just beyond the reach of Wi-Fi and cell service, and the unrelenting pressure to be always available — the pressure that comes with owning gadgets.
For three days, we slipped back into a world where no one checked out of their conversations with actual real people around them to check in on something or someone in the virtual world. Bliss.
Sunlight coming in through the leaves, the bright green canopy, leafy and complex above us was all the eye candy we needed. All we had in camp.
Sometimes I forget places like this still exist. Places where all the world is here and now.
When we weren’t at the stage seeing music performed, we sat in camp and talked. To each other. Exclusively.
I’m no Luddite, but if I could return to a world without mobile technology, I’d be there in a half a heartbeat. If I could give this world to my daughters to have forever, I’d do it even quicker. The idea of only here and now is totally foreign to my kids. At 9 and 12, they have no memory of a land before texts.
Sadly, they have no experience with parents who aren’t split between them and the phone.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
We constantly tell our kids to get off the screen and put down their gadgets, disconnect, yet we carry ours always. We, the collective we, our whole society, all of us text and email and check our social media incessantly no matter what else we’re doing. We share our experiences before we’ve even finished having them.
We’re trying to teach our kids responsibility and balance with electronics when we haven’t found the boundaries ourselves.
We say one thing — to disconnect — but we model another. When a text pings in, drop everything to read it. This is what they learn every time we reach for the phone at dinner, or on a walk, or in a movie, or in the car, or at the beach.
All these gadgets are still so new that we can’t help but screw up sometimes. Just like we can’t help but be alarmed by how frequently our kids reach for them. But the truth is, we don’t know if the time they spend on screens or gadgets is harmful or essential in the long run because technology changes so fast that we can’t predict what skills will best help them navigate the world they will inhabit as adults.
Who knows how many ways they will need to split their attention in every minute to keep up.
What Can We Do?
There’s just no way to give them the slower-paced lives we once led.
On the last day of the festival, I pulled out with a car full of girls, two 14-year-olds and a 9-year-old. Between us we had three iPhones and an iPad. At the top of a hill, where the driveway meets the main road, a few days of messages rang into every device, downloading one after another, everything we missed.
None of it is urgent.
“Sometimes I’m really sad for you guys,” I said. “You hardly ever get the true freedom of being unreachable.”
“Yeah,” one of the girls said. “Sometimes I wish we didn’t have cellphones and iPods, too.”
The closet they can get is a few days of camping.
We can’t go back. We can’t stay in the woods.
We can teach them to have a healthier relationship with their gadgets though, if we are willing to break our own bad habits.
1. Eat device-free meals, no gadgets at the table.
2. Do not answer calls and text when you are with you kids and use the ignored ring as an opportunity to tell them that they don’t have to always pick up.
3. Turn your phone off and put it in another room when you’re home with your kids. If you need to look something up online, do it quickly, the way you once would have used a newspaper or the yellow pages.
4. Set electronic-free hours that apply to you, too, not just them.
5. Teach them to give their full focus to the people they are with by being fully present when you’re with them.
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