Here we go:
I’m guessing many of you know this scene well: We are at a nice restaurant, the kind with rotating works of art on the wall and whimsical eclectic fusion cuisine, like blue cheese and beet root spring rolls. As we don’t normally live in a place with restaurants like this, we sigh into our chairs ready to savor everything about the experience. Just when we are feeling gloriously relaxed, it happens.
Our toddler, totally underappreciating the culinary luxury of his surroundings, starts whining. About something. Some injustice that only makes sense in the bizarre vortex of toddler logic. Like his sleeves are all the sudden "bothering" him. Or, the only piece of bread he wants is the one you just swallowed. The whining is incessant and crescendo-ing to a dreaded full-on tantrum. And no threats or promises of rewards are abating it.
People are starting to look. Some are giving us those irritated “control your child or leave him at home” stares. We’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
But a catastrophe is averted with this:
“Caleb, do you want to play Monkey Lunchbox?”
Caleb halts mid-whine turning his contorted demon face, on a dime, into an angelic “yes please, I’ll be a good boy” expression. Do you know that game where you do a fake frown and then run your hand up your face to reveal a smile? That’s what he did. It was that quick.
For those of you who don’t know, Monkey Lunchbox is one of those apps for kids you can download on your iphone. I think it’s been engineered precisely with this restaurant tantrum experience in mind. It’s educational enough (puzzles, shape matching and counting games etc…) and can be manipulated by a 2 year old.
And it’s a tantrum-averting godsend. I love it.
And I hate it.
I hate it so much.
I hate that it can so easily become our default child calmer. That it can make us lazy parents and that it can make our normally active and creative child a bit too comfortable staring at a screen. And I hate that it gives him one more thing to whine about: “Please, can I play Monkey Lunchbox. PLLEEEAASSE!!!!”
The same goes for movies. Or as we whisper them in our house “M-O-V-I-E-S.” Because to say the word would unleash a torrent of whine-begging that generally ends in a fist-pounding, back-arching, arm-flailing tantrum. (Did someone say movie? I want to watch a movie. PLLEEAASE can I watch a movie? Why can’t I watch a movie? I WANNA WATCH A MOVIE!!!)
Of course, like most parents, we let our youngster indulge in these media devises when we need to. To save the rare dinner out. As a once in a while treat. To give us a break when things get too hard. Or when we want to have morning sex.
But I’m ambivalent about it nearly every time. And I can hear you now: An occasional movie or video game is not going to kill him. In fact, a lot of it is educational and he might even learn something. Anyway, this is the way of the world now. Being able to manipulate an ipod and start a movie on your laptop are important skills for the world he’s going to grow in to.
So, what’s my problem?
Here's my problem: If I were a social critic (and, let’s face it anyone with a blogger or twitter account is a bona fide social critic. That’s how it works, in case you weren’t paying attention), what I would rant about the most would be the excessive screen interfacing we do in modern society.
[Sure, the fact that we celebrate the Kardashian sisters and elect people who brag that they don’t believe in science would be good subjects for social critiques, but my number one rant would still have to be our collective dependence on screen interfacing.]
I can’t tell you how often at family or social gatherings I’ve looked around the room and everyone is having a seemingly enjoyable interaction with a piece of electronics. Dad is checking the news on his Blackberry, Junior is playing a game on someone’s ipod, Sister is checking facebook on her laptop, Brother is perusing cat videos on youtube, Mom is looking up a recipe for dinner. I’m writing for this blog. (Yes. I’m part of the problem. I’ve asked you not to point out the hypocrisy.)
All of this is fine in theory. I partake of a lot of it, and I get that it helps connect us to faraway loved ones. But what stokes my ire is that pulling out an iphone or logging on to our gmail accounts have become our default positions. We’re no longer comfortable just “visiting.” No longer comfortable being together in silence. No longer comfortable (given google and wikipedia) with not knowing something.
Maybe I’m overreacting, but it seems that something very fundamentally human has changed with this.
It struck me most when we moved to Kenya. I would walk around town and stumble into groups of people just being with one another. Women sitting around doing each other's hair, holding their babies and gossiping. Groups of bicycle drivers relaxing in the shade. A duka customer sitting outside the shop chatting with the owner, neither feeling any hurry to move on. Sometimes there would be silence, but it was never uncomfortable.
I believe that these scenes, repeated in different climates, in different languages and in our own not so distant past, are what make us human. And I wonder if they are disappearing.
So, when I look around the room and see we are together physically but completely apart in focus, I can’t help but feel I’m living in some strange dystopian future, in which our backs are permanently curved from bending over our computer screens and we’re not quite so good at being together anymore.
And when I see my son comatose in front of a screen or throwing a temper tantrum so that he can achieve that state, I wonder how or if I can save him from that.
I’m fully aware that this post brands me “Old Lady McGrumpy Crumudeonpants” and that I’m by far a minority opinion here. I’m also guessing this could unleash a torrent of defense for social media and technology.So, give me your best counterpoint! If you can convince me, I’ll feel a whole lot better about all the time it took staring at this screen to write this post.
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