Friday, March 18, 2011

Smartphone-free and fully focused

Because my kids are not exactly brimming over with intellectual curiosity every day, it can take a bit of effort on my part to get them to enjoy a cultural excursion. So when they agreed to my suggestion that we visit the Salem Witch Museum on a rainy day earlier this week, I made sure that a hearty meal at a local luncheonette was part of the deal. We were sitting at a booth when Tim, after watching a table of construction workers all pull out their iPhones simultaneously and start scrolling through their screens, suddenly said, “Mom, you should really have a smartphone.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because everyone else does,” he responded. I suppressed a smile. Isn’t that normally the reason kids his age – twelve – want things for themselves: because everyone else has it? Was I discovering a new phase of child development: peer pressure by transference? Bad enough for a pre-teen not to have what everyone else does: is it even more embarrassing when your mom doesn’t hold the latest purse-sized technology?

“I don’t want a smartphone,” I told him. “I like to be able to walk away from my email. If I had a smartphone right now, I’d be checking my email and writing back to people. I like having to just leave it all behind when we go somewhere together.”

So it was fitting that less than 24 hours after this conversation, I was reading an article about MIT internet expert Sherry Turkle, who in her newest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, describes her experience conducting interviews with hundreds of teen subjects who complained about their parents’ overuse of mobile technology when they should be paying attention to their kids.

Turkle said that most people who heard that had the same reaction: they expected to hear that parents were complaining about their kids’ reliance on constant access to mobile communication, but what she instead found was the opposite. No matter whether they are toddlers or teens: kids want their parents’ undivided attention. My kids complain when we do errands or go to community events and I spend time chatting with other adults I know. “No chatting, Mom!” they insist time and again.

If I had a smartphone, it would be like chatting, only silently, I fear. My attention would be directed away from them even when we were deliberately choosing to spend time together. Turkle describes the scenarios she sees in which parents’ attention gets divided: a mother pushing a child on the swing with one hand and texting with the other; a father who sends emails during his son’s baseball game. As Turkle points out, it’s a mistake on many levels, and not only because it detracts from one-on-one time between parent and child. It’s also dangerous to let yourself get so distracted, and multitasking tends to lead to a decrease in the quality of whatever it is you are trying to accomplish as you multi-task.

So despite Tim’s comment, I’m glad not to carry my email around with me. I know I’d succumb to the temptation to use it when I shouldn’t, so why put myself in that position? As we ate our sandwiches, I listened to the kids talk about the witch museum, and then we all laughed quietly about a conversation going on at the booth behind us, which reminded us of a similar situation last month in which we heard a funny conversation at the booth behind us while we ate breakfast at a local diner. Tim asked me what kind of job I thought the construction workers who were avidly punching away at their phones as they waited for their lunches were doing on this rainy day, and Holly drew a picture on her paper placemat.

In short, we paid attention: to each other, to our surroundings. I was glad not to have any distractions; when my phone rang I silenced the ringer. My guess is that I won’t hold out forever. Everyone else walks around with their email at their fingertips, and eventually I will too. I just hope I remember that undivided attention should always be a priority: whether it’s on the kids, the driving, or just the sound of the rain against the restaurant’s windows.

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