The Real Social Media

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Here’s what I hope my children don’t say about me when they’re older:

“But he was always on his phone.”

I am of an age. I went off to college with an electronic typewriter, and this is what I used exclusively for the next seven years. It had a little screen that showed one line of text, and when I hit “enter” it typed out the line. I started using email after I graduated from college. I did not become familiar with the internet until I was out of grad school, and working the swing shift at the front desk of a library. I became an adult, ostensibly, without the benefit of this technology.

I didn’t even have a cell phone, in fact, until I became a parent at 32. It was not a smart one; that came a couple of years later. Once I met my iPhone, though, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back.

My phone was extremely useful to me as a parent of small children. I could look up the lyrics of bedtime songs. I could read in bed while the toddlers drifted off beside me. I could fire up Netflix when the baby woke in the night, and watch Battlestar Galactica while rocking her back to sleep. Before my phone had a built-in flashlight, I used an app.

The trouble started later. It was all too easy to be staring at my little screen instead of looking my children in the face. Somehow, I was always terribly busy finding out about something. Now Facebook was a thing. It is a lot for a child to compete with.

I would like to say that I put my phone away now when I need to be present as a parent. I’m not there yet. For a variety of reasons I left Facebook sometime last year (for one thing, I realized that it’s not healthy to argue with strangers; for another, I just don’t need to have an opinion about everything). This has helped tremendously. But I still find it all too easy to pick up my phone and let it soak up my time and attention. I imagine that this is a common experience.

Is there a middle way? I wanted to learn about how parents could use their devices in a moderate and balanced way. I found a lot of useful information (on my phone, of course). Some articles are more alarming than others. But I have also been working on some principles of my own.

  • If I’m going to spend time reading in the presence of my children, let it be a book. Having books around, reading and holding them, showing that they have value, is a much clearer and more powerful way to model literacy for kids.
  • Writing is also an important thing to model, and I’m often making lists or jotting down notes. I try to do it on paper. Handwriting is in danger of becoming a lost art (heck, a lost skill). As with books, showing the work brings it into the physical world and children notice and will emulate it.
  • When I want to spend time on my phone, I can do it when they’re sleeping, or when they’re occupied elsewhere, or when I’m taking a break in another room.
  • Since my phone is obviously such a useful and fascinating machine, I can use it to share things with my kids. Look things up when they ask questions; show them photos of animals and planets and works of art; let them watch tutorials and documentaries and, yes, videos of cats. They love that.
  • Most importantly, I can put my phone down during times in which I value our being together. Meal times, for example. I would not want them to have devices at the table, and they will do what they see much more than what I say.

Face to face conversation: that’s the real social media.