Life does not include a smartphone and the sky hasn’t fallen


Monday, February 26, 2018

If your child uses a so-called smartphone on a daily or hourly basis and everything is going well, this column may not be relevant. If, however, you’re wondering whether your kid is overwhelmed or chronically preoccupied as the result of using such a device, please read on. It may be especially interesting to parents of very young children or those who haven’t yet started a family.

I’m grateful for the convenience computers bring to my work life. Technology can open up worlds of information. Yet I’m concerned about unchallenged assumptions, especially when it comes to young people. Corporations and advertisers want us to believe that it’s inevitable for consumers — including kids — to use all the latest devices. But I believe parents can make choices that are best for their families.

In preparing for motherhood, I read many essays about our era’s shortened childhoods. When I became a mom, I wanted to protect my son’s innocence by postponing exposure to various types of technology, including hand-held devices that seem to become extensions of human bodies.

I don’t own or use a smartphone. This, of course, makes it easier for me to demonstrate to my son how easy it is to pass on smartphone use. I’m aware that it also makes me an anomaly. The same was true in 2001 when I decided to give up my car for one year in order to experience traveling almost exclusively by bicycle and by foot. When car travel was necessary, I relied on rentals and barters.

I admit that I am not a normal American person. My carless experiment stretched to 14 wonderfully challenging and illuminating years, including for 10 years after childbirth. My experiment ended when I moved to a location removed from my hub of work and commerce. My new challenge is to reduce car travel whenever possible.

Now that you understand that I lay no claims to what passes for normalcy in our culture, you may wish to move on to a different page of the newspaper. But if you’re curious about how bucking a trend can increase one’s joy quotient, read on.

Despite the fact that those of us born in the middle 20th century somehow survived adolescence without smartphones, we’re told that the genie is out of the bottle. Smartphones are here to stay — that is, until they’re supplanted by something even zippier. Since they’re here, we might as well use them, right?

Not necessarily. Just as I don’t advocate that children use marijuana or alcohol, and I prefer they don’t drive on the highway, I recommend appropriate stages for technologies when it comes to kids. I think each family should work that out for themselves.

I’ve been asked if I worry that my son will feel left out since he’s not using technology that “everyone else has.” I worry about a lot of things, but that is not one of them.

My son enjoys life to the fullest. He plays several team sports and makes up some of his own. He listens to and performs bluegrass music, climbs trees, bakes lattice-top pies, and designs logos using a drafting table and colored pencils.

Yet he’s no Luddite. He loves watching sports videos on our shared computer. After homeschooling through sixth grade, he now attends public school and is expected to do some homework online. He even has his own youtube channel (and he wants you to know about it! You can look up “gillis macdougall youtube” if you’re interested.)

But his life does not include a smartphone, and the sky hasn’t fallen. For now, he’s content to do his thing without the intrusion or convenience of a hand-held device. We check in about it every couple of months.

So far, his answer is always the same: “I’m busy. I don’t need one. I don’t want one.” At some point, this will probably change, but for now, this is where we are.

I’m grateful that my kid is spared certain types of mental clutter. It’s not like he lives in a bubble. We discuss current events and participate in community projects. But I want him to have what I had: time to think and dream in the quiet spaces of a low-tech life, knowing full well that adulthood brings other options.

Perhaps someday my son will regret that he didn’t have a high-tech childhood, but I doubt it. I’m willing to take that chance. Humanity is still in the very early stages of digital life. For some young people, it’s all they’ve known. But I happily recall silent hours and completely dark rooms. I cherished time spent alone in libraries or on tree branches, holding books in my hands, writing with a pen. Yes, an actual pen.

I thoroughly enjoyed solitude and still do, despite work that takes me into very public situations. I love social time just as much as I love hours spent alone writing music or creating art. I don’t feel in the least bit deprived. On the contrary, I feel grateful.

My kid is quicker than I when looking up information on the computer. He has a knack for technology that outpaces my ability and desire.

Despite a fairly recent entrance to formal schooling, he’s already adept at using the computer for homework and projects. I applaud his new skills. Yet I’m certain that, despite the proliferation of digital devices, it’s neither necessary nor inevitable for childhood to be intruded upon at every turn.

For now, we manage to exist without smartphones. It is possible. We look up digital maps on the computer and write directions on scraps of paper before leaving the house for unfamiliar destinations. We’re not suffering. We have loads of fun. The sky remains in its place.

Eveline MacDougall is the founder and director of the Amandla Chorus, A substitute teacher and lives in Northfield.