LET ME BE CLEAR: I am not anti-technology. In fact, I’m an early adopter. I had a Mac in college when everyone still adored PCs. My first iPod had an actual wheel on it that you spun to find your music. As a kid, I had an Atari video game system that played only one game: Pong.
Technology is good. In general, it works to make our lives better not worse. I never want to be that old guy fighting technology with nostalgic tales to my grandchildren. “I remember walking barefoot to school both ways in the snow, without an iPhone 6, and so should you.”
With that backdrop, I have to admit when my children were still small I began to have second thoughts about how much they were starting to rely upon technology. When my oldest son was six, the water dispenser on our refrigerator broke. Walking right past the sink he asked with real concern, “But Daddy, how will I get water?”
When our youngest was still a toddler of two, his mother and I showed him my old family photo album. He loved seeing photos of me as a child but would try to “swipe right” with his finger on the plastic photo page to turn to a new photo. He was obviously more adept with an iPad photo album than with an actual photo album.
My final hesitation about tech involves great memories of our Friday family movie nights. When my teenagers were still young, we loved going to the video store to pick out two to three DVDs for the weekend. We would lay out blankets in the living room, eat popcorn and watch Shrek. These are some of my favorite family memories. A few years ago, I tried to recreate the old magic except with Netflix on-demand. What has changed in those few years since my teens were little is that we now have exponentially more screens in the house.
We started family movie night with the New Adventures of Scooby Doo. Minutes into the movie, one teen child was texting friends, one was scrolling through their Twitter feed, our eight-year-old was battling Bowser on his Nintendo DS while the three-year-old watched Scooby and the gang foil the evil plans of Old Man Withers. Even my wife and I were guilty of toggling from movie time to Facebook on our phones. Everyone was glued to their own personalized screen. The magic was gone.
As sad as this turn of events is to me as a father, I honestly understand how hard it is in today’s world for kids to shut out technology. When I was in high school, there was a Radio Shack commercial that showed all of the great tech toys Santa may be delivering. The commercial panned through their store and showed a VCR, TV, phone, answering machine, computer, boom box, digital watch, video games, and a large, expensive video camera that weighed 20 pounds and sat on your shoulder. Today, all of this technology (and more) is in our phones. All of it!
It’s no wonder my children began asking to borrow my phone before they could even walk. I heard an interview recently where an author, speaking about technology and kids, referenced a college survey on whether students would prefer a broken phone or a broken bone. Forty-six percent chose the broken bone option. I don’t want my children to be sent to the island of misfit kids with broken bones and no iPhones, but I also want them to know what it’s like to entertain themselves without a screen.
Like most parents, we try to limit screen time and encourage playtime each day. One of the more ambitious things we have done is to set aside Sunday mornings as a screen-free time in our home. No TV, video games or internet until 1 p.m., which is conveniently the time NFL football kicks off (it pays to be the one setting the rules). They read, play games, swing on the playset – you know, all the things kids should do.
In setting aside Sunday morning as a tech-free time, I have learned a few unexpected lessons. First, I am usually the first one to turn on the TV at 1 p.m. sharp for football. Also, I am frequently guilty of “needing” to check my work email. And several times a morning, I have the strong urge to pick up my phone and scroll through the news or social media.
One Sunday last fall, I took my phone outside on the porch where I hoped I wouldn’t be noticed so that I could set my fantasy football roster on the ESPN app. I knew I was breaking the rules, but not having the right quarterback in a starting position is serious stuff.
My five-year-old walked onto the porch abruptly and – clearly enjoying the role reversal – corrected me with a wide grin, “Daddy! You’re not supposed to be on your phone. It’s not one o’clock yet.”
“You’re right. Daddy must have forgotten,” I lied. “I’ll put my phone away.” Walking back into the house and setting my phone on the counter, I realized the lesson about needing to regularly unplug is as much for me as for my children. I am the one that needs encouragement to pick up a book, listen to music or play chess with the kids. Apparently, my children are the ones teaching the lessons on Sunday mornings.
If I continue to be honest, I also feel a tinge of regret that my son caught me in my moment of tech weakness before I could move Tom Brady to my starting QB position. In the words of Old Man Withers from those Scooby Doo family movie nights, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”