My generation was the last to have had a childhood without a mobile phone. I got my first cell phone in my early twenties, and it was an archaic experience in comparison to today's technology -- no Internet, camera, Facebook, apps or texting, and it was just small enough to fit in my backpack. But I am grateful not to have been exposed to the seduction of the smartphone as a kid. I am sure I would have been just as tempted by it then as I am now. I am co-dependent with my mini-machine, and feel more lost if I leave the house without my phone than if I had forgotten to put on pants. It makes me wonder what is it like for these iKids growing up with endless access and distraction in the palm of their hands.
Apple recently released a commercial in which a young boy visits his family for Christmas. He is glued to his phone the entire time, while everyone else enjoys the present moment. As the family gathers around the tree, the boy connects his iPhone to his Apple TV and shows everyone that he wasn't wasting his holiday immersed in his iWorld, but was actually making a beautiful video! Everyone gets sentimental and cries while watching themselves live the past week of their lives... that they just lived. Even I got swept away, breathed a sigh of relief and thought, "See Toni, it is totally OK to interact more with your phone than with the actual humans around you -- as long as you are making content!"
This is exactly the conflict. Smartphones have amazing capabilities and offer endless opportunities for creativity -- which is exactly why they are so addictive. Yet, like all addictions, there is also dark side with untold consequences. As a parent, I experience a daily dilemma in handling this technology.
Before having kids, I swore I'd NEVER allow my offspring to watch movies in the car. I believed children should stare out the window and imagine -- like I did when I was young. However, after one fateful five-hour road trip with my then-2-year-old, I realized the iPad was the greatest invention of all time. My preconceived self-righteousness was replaced by the desire to drive without a screaming toddler. She happily watched a video while I buried my feelings of failure.
As much as the iPad feels like a miracle during these car trips, it also simultaneously disturbs me how lost my daughter gets in that screen. After a year of being successfully potty trained, we were in the car one day when she mentioned having to go to the bathroom. I asked if we should pull over and she replied, "No, I will just pee in my pants," and proceeded to do just that. She made the conscious choice to sit in her own urine rather than pause "Curious George."
When I was a kid, my parents did have television to placate me, but I also had to be home to watch it. Now, entertainment can go everywhere we go, as the iPhone and iPad have the potential to become portable babysitters. I recently saw a family out to dinner and the two young children were both on phones as they waited for the food to come. Part of me wanted to cry over the tragedy of it all, and another part of me thought, Well, maybe the parents wanted to have a conversation and not be interrupted 79 times by complaints of being hungry or things taking too long. But I still wept a single tear because of this post-modern conundrum.
Phones and tablets are small and designed to be a solitary experience. These hand-held amusement parks for the mind put us into a trance of disconnection -- you can be around others, but still totally isolated. So, how do we prevent our kids from becoming heartless cyborgs, but not isolate them from the inevitable integration between machine and man? Encouraging productivity over mindless browsing, not relying on phones/tablets out of laziness, having tech-free time and being a good example are all part of promoting healthier relationships with these devices, but the solution isn't obvious.
Parents these days are pioneers, in a sense. We are dealing with issues unprecedented in human history, and can't predict how our children (or anyone, for that matter) will be affected by smartphones and tablets. The pace of technology makes us feel like we have to rush through life and don't have the time to deal with the many inconveniences our children provoke. The phone may sometimes save us from the boredom and chaos of life, but it also makes it hard to look up and see the beauty.