Keeping It Real

When our daughter was four, we went canoeing and camping in Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia for three nights with another family, whose daughter was three. The girls entertained themselves easily, without even as much as a bucket and shovel. They spent the days splashing in the water, playing on the beaches, and whispering and laughing in their “secret spot” – a thicket of low Douglas fir branches bent over the outlet of a small creek near our campsite. They needed nothing for entertainment other than the sticks, rocks, and frogs that they found in their explorations.

photo of a man holding his small child and relaxing in the mountains

Before our daughter was born, my wife and I consciously opted out of owning any electronic mobile devices, including cell phones. We have a landline phone and a home computer. But we drew the line at hand-held computer gadgets. Our daughter is now seven, and we have a three-year-old son.

The fact is, we’ve never wanted or needed constant connectivity to digital information, entertainment, or other people. But parenting without electronic mobile devices also gives us solidarity with our kids’ experience of the world. The real world of things is interesting to them. They look at people’s faces, at passing clouds, at darting squirrels. They live in the present moment.

According to a recent study by Northwestern University, 84 percent of children eight years and younger in North America use screen media for more than 2.5 hours a day. Almost half of those kids spend more than 4.5 hours a day looking at screens. Our youth are so screened up that the US National Park Service is concerned about how to make National Parks and protected areas more “relevant.” The Northwestern study also shows that children’s usage rates mirror that of their parents. These patterns are no doubt strengthened by the recent proliferation of “smartphones” and other portable devices with screens.

These mobile devices constantly invite us to disconnect from our actual surroundings. The present moment is subordinated to distraction, interruption, and the hyper pace and impatient expectations of instant communication. The sheer power and convenience of these technologies provide infinite rationales for using them, which often means using them for trivial reasons. My wife and I don’t want to wield this perennial trump on the here-and-now right when our kids are learning, by our example, how to inhabit it. By forgoing such gadgetry, we won’t be distracted by a screen while we’re with our kids.

Of course, this means giving up some convenience. But convenience isn’t everything. “Convenience stores” sell “junk food.” Many important human values – such as good food, family life, kids, art, and nature – are not predicated on convenience. They are valued in spite of their inconvenience. But our mobile gadget culture implicitly promotes convenience as an end in itself. We check, look up, post, send, and receive, simply because we can. This infatuation with convenience for its own sake can overshadow other important values.

Perhaps it would set a better example to adopt these mobile technologies and demonstrate self-control, rather than opt out completely. It sounds good in theory. But what needs self-control is not just how much these devices are used, but where and when. And the very nature of these devices makes this extremely difficult. As philosopher Albert Borgmann puts it: “The blurring of functional boundaries is the hallmark and predicament of information technology.” According to Borgmann, cyberspace is not like an ocean with distinct shorelines and dry land, but more like a “flood” that “insinuates itself into the cracks” of our lives. We “easily slip,” he says, away “from the important by way of the interesting to the distracting.”

My kids will need to learn to swim in the flood eventually. But there is no rush. We can stay on dry land for a while and share the real world and the present moment with them. Important values – including the “relevancy” of their surroundings, from the street corner to the wilderness – might gain a strong and lasting foothold in their lives.

“The medium is the message,” media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote. Maybe the best way to send the message to children that the real world is relevant is to let the real world be the medium. If we do that, then our children might also help us re-connect to what is beautiful and worth caring about.

Paul Keeling is a musician, freelance writer, and stay-at-home dad.

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