There is a fantastic scene at the start of the movie Warm Bodies where the protagonist, a zombie named Z, reminisces about what life must have been like before the zombie apocalypse. It must have been wonderful, he thinks as he walks through an airport terminal teaming with the senseless undead, to be able to talk to each other and have a real, meaningful, human connection with someone else. As he thinks this the scene shifts to a time before the outbreak and the terminal is full of living people, each focussed entirely on the tablet or phone they hold.
I remember watching the movie and thinking what a poignant commentary it is on our modern, mobile device driven culture and lifestyle. We’re now more connected to each other than ever before, but we achieve this connectedness by isolating ourselves from those around us. We are at a terrible in between time where technology has created a social situation for which there is not yet solidified etiquette.
But we risk more than just appearing rude. We’ve all seen the mother who at the park spends the whole time on Facebook while her child desperately vies for her attention. Or the father who keeps telling his son he’ll play catch “in just a second” while he obsessively refreshes his Twitter feed (I am that father). We continually send messages to those around us, and most strongly to our children, that what is happening out there is far more important to us than what is happening right here. What does this do to a child who cannot get his parents’ attention because they are too involved in the doings of people that, too often, they hardly know? I ask rhetorically. I do not know, but I cannot imagine it helps him grow to be a healthy, well-adjusted person. I don’t want my kids to remember me with my face always buried in my phone screen, feeling like they’re perpetually second on my priority list.
From the perspective of my six year-old daughter there is no difference between me texting my wife to clarify which brand of detergent is the one that doesn’t ruin clothes but also doesn’t cause skin rashes and checking to see if there are any new tweets (even though I checked 45 seconds ago). She can’t tell that one is important and relevant to the task at hand and one is escapist, isolating entertainment. All she knows is that I told her we’d go to the store together for some fun daddy-daughter time and I’m not present with her.
Journaling digitally is similarly troublesome. The benefits of digital journaling make it very attractive to me. I can have my journal entries available anywhere; searchable, annotated with photos, and automatically including location, weather, etc. But journaling is naturally introspective. When you journal it is you and the journal (whatever method you use). One of the detriments of digital journaling, then, is that for longer periods of time you sit staring at a screen. This can also be confusing to those around you.
I’m hesitant to call this section the solution because I don’t know that there really is a solution. I can think of some practical steps. But I think the real solution is that we learn to moderate ourselves. We need to learn to quell the FOMO1 and develop the skills necessary to be present. That is the real solution. It’s learning to use the technologies that we have to serve us in a helpful way.
If I revisit the example at the store with my daughter how can I still get the information that I need while at the same time teach and model appropriate boundaries and behaviors for her. I can think of a couple different ways.
- I can make an old fashioned phone call. While this is isolating me from her it is not leaving her in doubt about what I’m doing. She understands the purpose and duration of my distraction away from the time we’re spending. There’s no worry that I’ll float back to the phone call in a couple of minutes “just to see if there’s something new”, the phone call has a definite beginning and end. And when it ends I go back to giving her my attention.
- My daughter is learning to read and write and so I can hand the phone to her and together we can set about the task of learning which brand we need to buy. In this scenario neither of us are isolated as we use the technology together to accomplish our goal. It also becomes a learning experience for her as I’m able to help her type and spell correctly.
Or, perhaps, if my son is riding his bike around in the back yard instead of isolating myself from by texting my wife to tell her about it, I can bring him into the conversation. “Buddy, what do you want me to tell mommy about how you’re riding your bike?” We can take photos together to send to her. I need to lead by example to show him that it’s OK to communicate with others who aren’t there. That’s good! But it’s not good to cut off those around us.
For journaling a change of habit is probably needed. For me, at least, it is much easier to remain tangentially aware of my surroundings and disengage with what I’m doing when I am writing in a physical book. It is psychologically less magnetic. So the habit that I need to develop (that I’m not practicing at the moment) is to journal in a physical book when I need to capture a thought around other people so I can still engage with them.
I want to teach my children to love technology the way I love technology. But I want to teach them to love it in a healthy way. I want them to be able to be excited about the tool while still recognizing it as just that a tool, that you use and then set aside. It exists to serve you, not consume you.
For example, my iPhone has the ability to shoot video at 120 fps2. My oldest son and I were playing with some wind up motorcycles. We were winding them up and sending them drag racing down a straightaway made out of blocks. Then we built a wall at the end and sent them crashing through the wall. It was fun watching the bikes crash and tumble. But we made it even more fun by filming it and then watching it back in slow motion. These are the sort of experiences and memories I want my kids to have. Memories where technology enhances our time together rather than detracts from it.