My daughter is a pretty amazing ice skater, for a four-year-old, except that sometimes she gets distracted and chews absently on the strap of her helmet. Before her lesson the other night, I reminded her not to do that, and told her I would be watching.
"OK," she said, "I'll just wait until you're looking at your iPhone, and then do it."
I smiled tenderly, patted my precocious girl on her pink helmet, and sentenced myself to a lifetime in Bad Dad Jail.
I am not alone, of course. Everyone I know who possesses both children and a smartphone bears some level of guilt for the instances -- however infrequent -- where they go, "One sec, sweetheart," before doing a quick stock-market check or firing off a text message. (This New York Times article from last year reported on a kid so frustrated about his mom and her BlackBerry that he almost bit her on the leg.)
This is not an issue born in the digital age. Surely, as long as humans have been reproducing, we've been finding ways to temporarily relieve ourselves of the stress and tedium of tending to our spawn. But the smartphone represents a high-water mark in the history of ignoring one's children. A 21st-century parent, wishing to tune out for a moment while reading "Curious George" for the umpteenth time, can instantly disappear into that magical otherworld of political updates, sports scores and random inanities -- all just a glance and a finger swipe away.
Last year I spent some time with Anna Karenina, and was struck by Tolstoy's anxiety about things like the telegraph and, famously, the steam engine. It's an anxiety not just about how new technologies affect the economic structure of a society, but also how they change its moral fabric. From new modes of communication to new industries creating new kinds of work and workdays, every metamorphosis has unexpected consequences on society in general and family life in particular.
Fast-forward a hundred years from Tolstoy's time, and it is unquestionable that new technologies are rethreading our own moral fabric. I'm now reading Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows" (I'll be giving it five stars) and looking forward to Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" (five stars!). Smarter people than I are contemplating the galloping pace of digitalization and the strange new places it is taking us -- the unsavory secret surveillance of romantic exes via Google search, the broadening and shallowing of our circle of "friends," and our idea of friendship on Facebook.
My fear, driven home by the incident at the ice rink, is that a change of similar consequence is afoot in the world of parent-child relations. We all know that a kid is profoundly affected when a parent goes out for smokes and never comes back. What's the long-term result of a parent "stepping out" over and over and over -- a few seconds here, a couple minutes there -- to check in with their little handheld totem? Is there a lessening, however minute, of whatever essential connectedness it is that makes a child grow up self-confident and happy?
I've got no answers, but I think I know what Tolstoy would say. I also know that next time I'm watching my daughter skate, my iPhone is going on airplane mode.
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