Like most of us, I owe a lot to computers.
I write these words on a handy, lightweight laptop and will soon watch them set sail on the internet, an admittedly vast and choppy sea, but a nonetheless efficient and economical means of travel for my humble writing. My daughter takes free typing lessons on this same internet, and my junior herpetologist and I can easily find answers to her queries about the world’s biggest snake or oldest tortoise with a couple of clicks. My cracked and by now probably “ancient” smartphone can store precious family photos and help me to navigate any new city by car or foot.
It’s all pretty amazing, and by now most of us take our world of exploding technological advances for granted. The ubiquitous screens with their clicks and swipes are just a part of modern life. The speed only increases, and the advancements just keep advancing. As a society, we do not hold on; we lunge forward.
There is, however, an undeniable undercurrent of anxiety that accompanies all this progress, particularly regarding portable devices like smartphones and tablets. Parents and the news media fret over kids’ screen time and possible internet addiction. Social media is a culprit in everything from cyber bullying to youth suicide.
The concerns are, of course, extremely valid. The health effects of too much screen time for children and adults, particularly sleep loss and physical inactivity, are no small matters. Bullying and mental health issues regarding children’s social media usage point to disturbing trends.
But maybe as a society we need to ask even bigger questions about our relationships with screens. Not just what are screens doing to our brains and sleep patterns but what are screens doing to our spirits, our relationships, and our culture? What are some of the “problems” solved by our screens (boredom, a lack of constant information influx, the requirement to be in the same room with someone in order to socially connect) that might actually have benefits?
Why is it now considered normal for a child to be thrust into a digital world of carefully curated images and judgement via social media before they can even cook their own breakfast?
Why are so many adults more concerned with presenting a life their Facebook friends “like” rather than truly living a life of integrity and peace? Speaking of adults, why are we not modeling a bit more self restraint for our children when it comes to purchasing all these bright and shiny tech toys for ourselves? The cultural consensus seems to be that if it’s a new tech item, then it’s automatically a must have.
Why are schools and businesses so quick to embrace new technologies to enhance learning and productivity when some of these technologies have yet to be proven to enhance anything more than distraction? The research says that taking notes by hand is actually better for learning, but many school boards insist that every kid having a laptop is the key to academic success.
With the gains of screens and their conveniences we and our children risk losing precious experiences. We risk losing our sense of awe at nature’s wonders as our minds become accustomed to digital showmanship and the brain candy served up by social media. We risk losing our patience for reading books cover to cover. We risk losing out on connections through dinner conversations, family walks and games, and time to sit with our own thoughts.
I am disturbed by society’s collective throwing up of hands, as if to say, “This is just the way it is. There’s nothing we can do.” The culture of screens has real implications for all of us, especially our children. It’s not good enough to just give in and go along.
Of course there are things we can do. Maybe we can just start by asking if the tech way is always the best way. Many homeschoolers may be on the front lines of preserving a more “analog” way of life by resisting excessive screen usage in their homes. Homeschoolers have the luxury of picking and choosing which screen activities are actually beneficial, and their children don’t need to be tethered to a laptop all day to learn. Pursuits like cursive handwriting, drawing, and poetry and nature study are popular in homeschool circles because they teach our children patience, perseverance, and attention to detail.
Restrictions and limits on screen usage will vary by family, and everyone is different. We have a hierarchy of learning resources in our home: first books, then experiences, then screens. This works for us and seems to preserve a healthy balance in welcoming the benefits of screens while avoiding too much of a good thing. I joke that I’m a bit of a Luddite, but I wouldn’t want to give up our Netflix subscription and all the wonderful nature and history documentaries it includes.
We have a pretty strict schedule for allowing our kids to play around with technology, with supervision. My kids do not have their own phones, tablets, or TVs. My husband practices a screen-free period for part of every weekend, and I work to carefully monitor my own usage and model good habits to my kids.
We’re not perfect by any means (hello, cat videos), but we’re trying to navigate this strange new world of technology while not losing what matters along the way, just like many other families.
We talk about technology and culture with our kids, and we let our kids know that while computers are an essential part of modern life, the world is full of beautiful things not made of ones and zeroes.
What I believe is important is continuing to ask questions as a society about the benefits and harms of a world gone digital. To pause for a just a moment before making that touch, that swipe, and to ask if maybe, just maybe, there might be something better to do.