Young girl in red hatSmartphones are great. Just think - you have the whole encyclopedia in your hands and access to everything that’s going on in politics, sports, and pop culture, all day every day. It can present to you any music you want at any time, right here right now. And you can keep up with what your friends and family are doing through Facebook and other social media. Awesome.

However, there are substantial downsides to having and using smartphones.  Really? What is the way in which the smartphone can be an obstacle to living life in a full rich way?

For adults there are obvious difficulties in smartphone use, starting with texting and walking. Numerous internet videos depict people staring at their smartphones while walking - walking into moving traffic or walking into benches, people, poles, you name it. All the things you walk into when you don’t look where you are going. How about texting and driving? I must say that I am still in awe of the pathological self-centeredness of those who text and drive. They have moments when they are driving a lethal weapon but they are not looking where they are going. Some of them kill people. US national safety statistics for 2015 now show an increase in fatal accidents after 50 plus years of steady decline. This is correlated with a steady increase in the quality of the vehicles and their safety. It’s the drivers you need to worry about, and that phone they have next to them in the front seat.

Row of children staring at phonesSmartphones can also be problematic when we give them to children.  How so? Think about your own reading habits since smartphones came in. When you are on Facebook you can see, read and move on to the next topic after about a minute or two, or less. Back in the day you would read an article in National Geographic magazine about lions in Africa or about the Peruvian jungle and the article would take you 10 minutes to read. Ten minutes versus one minute. That is what the problem is now. When you hand out smartphones to your children you are setting them on a course of frequent visual stimulation, with near immediate feedback. The frequency of the images, and the responsiveness of the device can create a physiological disposition or even a dependency on being entertained more or less constantly. Sounds like an addiction to me. And if that were to happen to your child (on account of something that you did) don’t you think it would lead to sadness and disappointment? And who would have caused the sadness and the disappointment? That would be you.

The need for frequent images and constant feedback would also present an impediment to learning, I think. Sadness, and difficulty with learning. Wait, what? I think we were told that these devices would enhance learning and make us happy.

Life is not entertainment. Life is work, sharing, learning, reading, talking, communicating, disagreeing, doing something for someone, and moving on to the next thing. Each of these things takes more than a minute.

Back when the video screen of the day was TV, my wife and I greatly reduced our own kid’s exposure to that screen by various means. I used to say that I would rather that two of my kids get in an argument than have the two of them sit and watch TV peacefully. Why? TV is passive, you don’t learn much from watching, and the time spent displaces a more useful activity. Arguing, even fighting, is interactive and demands more from the participant. Plus you have to learn how to make up, and say you are sorry, and give forgiveness.

Now the video screens that can harm your children have proliferated. Now they can have a smartphone, an Ipad, a video screen in the car, or two. Recently when my wife and I were out looking at houses so we could downsize, we saw many houses that had a flat TV on the wall in room after room. TV in the bedroom, TV in the family room, TV in the kitchen, TV in the living room. I think the dining room is the only room that is safe. And these TV’s are huge. What are the parents thinking?

Woman looking at her phoneAnyway, here is what I think would be useful if you already have given a smartphone to your child and your house is loaded up with TV’s.  Stop! Cancel the cable bill, so the TV’s just get what comes over the air. Buy a rabbit ears antenna for the TV in the family room and decommission all the others, especially the ones in the bedrooms and in the kitchen. Put a painting in front of the flat screen TV on the wall, or cover it with a curtain as if there were a window behind the curtain. If the child is under 12, just take the smartphone back. Don’t worry if the child complains. You are the parent; you know what is best for them. Do it.

Now look at what you are doing with your smartphone. What kind of example are you setting for your child? Don’t use the phone while driving. OK that means no texting, but it also means no phone calls. People actually lived their lives without constant access. All people in the history of mankind up until 10 years ago lived their lives without constant phone access. I am pretty sure you can do this. Do it. Stop using Facebook. Go on a holiday from Facebook today, for a week. Write a note in the notes section of your smartphone – Facebook Holiday starting (today’s date). Then leave. After that go on regular holidays, say one week a month, or for a month.  

Victoria Prooday, an occupational therapist from Toronto published a blog this May with strong advice for parents about setting limits for children, about restricting technology, and about stepping up to their role as parents by putting our own phones down, by doing less for each child, so the child can learn to do things for themselves. By focusing on what the parents are doing, and how simple changes that the parents can make would help the children grow and mature, I think she is on the right track. See more here.

Be present to the people you are with now, especially your own children. Turn the TV off. Put the phone away. When it rings (or beeps) (or buzzes), ignore it for 30 minutes, then go look. Don’t be a slave to the device. Be in charge.


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John L. Keefe
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