Is Your Attention Split Between Gadgets and God's Gifts?

(photo: Image Credit: Sam Wolff, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Friday night, our family of ten visited a local pizza place to celebrate the completion of our new kitchen--and yes I do see the irony there, but I figure the new kitchen stayed clean that way and I didn’t have to cook. So, winning. The kids were of course beyond excited for the outing, because dining out is a pretty rare treat for the likes of us--did I mention there are ten people in our family? 

As we sat drinking our sodas and eating our Chicago-style slices, my twelve-year-old daughter leaned in and whispered, “Mom!  Do you see how all the people around us are on screens?  Those adults over there are all looking down, on their phones, and that little boy at that other table is watching something on an ipad!  It’s kind of sad, because they’re here at a restaurant and are supposed to be together!”  I smiled and nodded, chuckling to myself.  Just five months ago, this same child was leaving notes on my pillow, begging me to buy her a smart phone.

At twelve years old, my daughter is already in the minority of peers that doesn’t own some type of electronic device or have a social media account.  Technically she does have an inexpensive tablet, but we don’t pull it out too terribly often.  When she visits a friend’s home or goes off to school, she is completely unplugged.

And midway through this school year, it began to bother her a little bit.  She wanted to be able to text, play games, and be included in whatever her girlfriends were chatting about.  There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, of course--it’s normal to gravitate towards speaking whatever common language the people around you are speaking.  In this case, it was technology.  But I began to see that my husband and I would need to really hammer out what our screen policy was going to be, and not only that but the reasons why.  Our daughter is smart and in her mind, if she’s not doing anything bad online, what could it hurt?

Certain things of course had always seemed like common sense to me.  I’ve always believed, for example, that children should get to be children, running and playing and building.  I’ve never loved the idea of my kids sitting in front of any type of screen for very long.  We do regularly enjoy family movie nights, we like playing the Wii, and I’m not above a little bit of PBS-placating, but few things seem more depressing to me than a bunch of kids staring at the glow of a monitor or TV, while all of the Legos, books, bikes, and scooters sit, neglected.

But I wanted real reasons to back up my feelings and hunches, and so decided to do some reading about the shifting cultural tides related to technology and conversation.  This subject actually initially piqued my interest because, after more or less giving up Facebook in December, I discovered some surprising benefits to my life--lower levels of anxiety, more margin for thinking things through, and a greater capacity for engaging with my eight children.  (Surprisingly, I don’t miss my former feed-scrolling habits at all.  Nearly four months later and I’m still going strong.)

So I recently picked up a couple of psychologist Sherry Turkle’s books--Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age--in hopes of exploring this whole phenomenon further, from a scientific and anthropologic perspective.  How have screens changed us, how are they affecting our children when it comes to brain development, and what can we as parents do to ensure we’re raising kids who are both sociable and empathetic?  What could I tell my daughter to help her understand why unlimited screen access among adolescents is a dangerous proposition, even apart from the ever-looming potential for exposure to pornography?

What I have found through my reading is both disconcerting and hopeful. 

In a 2015 interview in The Atlantic, Turkle explains that “...when you put young people in a summer camp where there are no devices, within five days their capacity to watch a scene, and then successfully identify what the people in the scene might be feeling, begins to go back up again from being depressed when they first arrived, armed with their devices. We suppress this capacity by putting ourselves in environments where we’re not looking at each other in the eye, not sticking with the other person long enough or hard enough to follow what they’re feeling.” 

Then she goes on later to discuss what she calls technology’s “‘three gifts from a benevolent genie’: that you’ll never have to be alone, that your voice will always be heard, that you can put your attention wherever you want it to be. And that you can slip in and out of wherever you are to be wherever you want to be, with no social stigma. [These devices create] a new set of social mores that allow for a split attention in human relationships and human community.”

As Catholics, we know what it means to be created human, male or female, in God’s image.  We (of all people!) extoll the importance of personal relationship, connection, and community.  We speak of faith, hope, and charity, and as parents we long to cultivate those virtues in our children.  We embrace the dignity of the human person, an openness to life, and also the importance of silence and reflection.  But are personal devices luring us away from these ideals?  Are Facebook groups taking the place of coffee and donuts in the parish hall, and are online “friends” eclipsing friendships with fellow parishioners, priests, and neighbors? Is a “split attention in human relationships and community”, as Ms. Turkle phrased it, at odds with the way God designed us to live and to love?

I am more convinced than ever that the documented research and proof are there, if only we’re willing to see and accept it: we must approach these technologies with great moderation and care.  And when we don’t, we are potentially destroying the very fabric of our communities. 

Navigating screen time will of course look different for every family, but for us? Based on the research available, we’ve said no to smart phones for kids, tablets are permitted only occasionally and only in a common room as part of a group activity (think family game time where everyone is sitting together with his or her respective tablet, playing a game), and all of our home devices (laptops, tablets, etc.) are password protected--so only my husband or I can grant the child access.  As our kids get older I’m sure we’ll need to put more and/or different controls in place, but for now, this is the approach we’ve chosen to take.  I have also gotten much better about leaving my phone out of sight during meals and family activities.

Now it must also certainly be said that much good has come from technology, but we need to be willing to look at the whole picture.  I was admittedly a little nervous about having this conversation with my children--no parent likes to tell their kid no--but guess what?  My kids were actually really interested to hear what I’d read!  They were curious about the research, and a lot of it made good sense to them.  My daughter understands now why we’ve chosen not to allow her a smart phone or Instagram account, and she sees that the stakes are incredibly high.  She has, after all, been in social situations where she is the only child not sitting glued to her device, and she knows how isolating that feels--and, consequently, how ridiculous it is that such a social situation even exists among middle schoolers. 

Not too long after we’d adopted this newly emboldened approach to technology, my daughter led several of my other children in crafting homemade kites from sticks and trash bags.  They spent the following week running around our field and climbing on top of the playhouse roof, trying to get the poor little kites to take flight.  (Some of them did and some of them didn’t--just yesterday I discovered one, tattered in shreds, stuck up high in one of our pine trees!)  Upon reflection I decided that the beauty of friendship among siblings, the enjoyment of God’s creation, and the cultivation of creativity and imagination are well worth the fight. 

As Catholics, my children must learn to be in the world, but not of it.  They will inevitably encounter situations where perhaps we as a family do things a bit differently than most, or where they must take a bold stand for their faith.  My hope and prayer for my children is that, in retaining their enjoyment of the real (versus digital) things in life, and also the capacity for relationship, they will remain close to Jesus and so be able to extend genuine friendship to others. 

And if it means forgoing a few gadgets here and there, or having to make conversation as a family at the pizza place, so be it.