The question of what is the most genuinely human engagement with the daily explosion of new technologies is no simple question, but for those of us who are pioneers in raising children as members of the iGeneration it’s a necessary conversation that must be had often. So much good, so much bad, and even more ambiguities that haunt the space between the two. Let me share just one example of that conversation here.
Not long ago I was speaking with a parent and we were talking about this question. She shared their family struggle over the use of technologies in the home and had some really stirring thoughts. She gave me permission to share her general thoughts. I share her comments because her struggle is so real and honest. She and her husband have given lots of thought to this question and have devised their own plan over the years to try to create in their home a healthy balance. But they find that balance hard to strike and elusive. Her comments went something like this:
We keep telling them technology’s just a part of their life. Fat chance they’ll buy that line, huh? But my teens of course are the worst. My daughter, once she came right back at me and said, “No, Ma, it IS my life. It’s all my friends’ life. You just don’t get it because you’re old.” Once she said to me, “Why are you so strict? It’s ridiculous. NOBODY else is so strict.” I said to her, and I was ticked, “Because if we didn’t set limits you’d never get off!” She came right back at me, like a good teenager, “I get my work done. It’s how I stay connected with my friends; it’s how we talk; so you obviously don’t want me to have a life.” I said, “That’s not true! You don’t see it, but I do, your Dad does. When you’re on that stuff too much you get isolated and pull away from your family. You get like a zombie. And even when you’re with us for dinner or over at grandma’s or your uncle’s, you’re somewhere else; wishing you were on your iPhone.” … I didn’t sign up for this. Never imagined when we had kids in the 1990s that this would be our biggest parenting struggle. It’s everywhere. All the crap out there, trying to protect them. Get them self-control. It’s only supposed to be part of life, not life. The hardest part is that it feels like we’re the only family of our kids’ friends we know who draws these hard lines. So we look like wacko extremists. … I tell my kids, “When I was your age” — you know they roll their eyes when they hear that — I say, “When I was your age, I visited my friends’ houses. We’d sit in the bedroom and talk for hours. I would read books. I’d help my Mom pick herbs and veggies in the garden and helped make dinner.” They roll their eyes. “That’s real stuff,” I tell ’em, “not virtual. Real” I tell ’em, I was a normal teen and rebelled over this or that; and got bored with family stuff; but when I was home I was home. Like, face-to-face home.” It’s really hard to explain and they ALWAYS have something to say back about social media being realer and better because they can be friends with tons of people. But it’s different. It’s hard to explain to them, but I see it’s different. They look like bloody addicts when you take them away from their gadgets. Once when I was feeling very emotional, I put my hands on my daughter’s cheeks and pulled her face up from her iPhone and said, “See my face? It’s real. And I love looking at your face.” I put her hands on my face and said, “I love you. This is where life really happens. Skin and tears and kisses.” I kissed her and said, “Remember when you were little and we’d just snuggle in our bed in the morning and talk about everything? Why can’t I have you back again?” It was one of those rare times I dropped the “angry Mom” thing and let my guard down. We both cried and cried. It’s just so hard. I wish it wasn’t like this. Nobody prepared me for this. We’re the first ones to deal with an iPhone generation, right? No instruction manual.
Pope Benedict XVI once shared a thought on this struggle:
The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbor” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.
I’d also like to promo a book written by a friend and colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, who shares some profound insights on this conversation from the heart of the Church: Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age.
Let me end with a fun video of a little girl and her parents engaging in the kind of “bedroom communion” the Mom I spoke with longed for: