A few months ago, we gave our ten-year-old a phone. We didn't think the phone worked. We thought it was innocuous enough, and imagined he would have fun playing with the clock and the calendar and the preset music, and a few preloaded games. Boy, are we naive.
The first surprise was that the phone was still data-"active." I still think this must be a glitch. Imagine Isaac's wild joy as he hollered down the stairs, "I can still download stuff!" I think I was in a bit of denial, and admitting that makes me feel like a bad parent. After a couple of days, I asked him to show me, and he demonstrated that he could get games, and music, and what-have-you, provided he is in a wireless hotspot. For instance, our house.
I have looked at the games. The games are fine. The music is fine. What's not fine is that Isaac easily becomes the Hermit of the Far Reaches when engaged with his phone. He reverts to single syllables. He hunches around in his hoodie and huddles on his bed. He is horribly grumpy if anything interrupts his phone time. He cannot wait to get back to the phone.
He tells us he only uses the phone for 5 minutes at a time, but in reality he can be up there "reading" for hours and I don't know how much time was reading, and how much was phone. I am pretty sure the phone was much more than 5 minutes' worth. I don't know whether he means to misrepresent his phone time, or whether he really becomes so lost in it that he does not know that 2 hours have elapsed. As a fellow nerd, I can relate to becoming lost in fun technology. But a niggling at the back of my mind sets in, and I recall our pediatrician recommending no more than an hour per day of "screens" (computer/tv/phone) at the outside maximum. Preferably, fewer than 30 minutes.
Sometimes, as all parents do, I emerge into moments in which things are suddenly extremely clear, like technicolor. That happened tonight. I asked Isaac for his phone, and I put it in a drawer, and told him that he is invited to check it out, like a book from the library, for 30 minutes per day, time and schedules permitting.
Isaac was suitably disgusted by this arrangement. He proceeded to have a stomach ache. (Affirmation #1 that I made a good call.) Then, he had a weepy meltdown. (Affirmation #2.) It feels so cold and calculating to write about it this way, but sometimes his emotional reactivity is itself an indicator - I think - of a state of stress and what we call "zombie brain" (mild addictive behavior) brought on by overuse of said phone and/or threat of its loss. The behavior proves the need for a change.
After a cool-down, he wanted to talk about it.
"Mom, if you could just explain -- WHY."
"The way I see it, Honey, your phone is like beer. It's fun every now and then, but you don't need it all the time. It's not good for you to have it all the time."
"But Mom, you have beer all the time!"
"You can get beer any time! You have it! You don't have to check it out!"
"Sure I do - as an adult I get to monitor my own check-out, but I don't just have it with me all the time. Can you imagine if I had a beer in my purse at work, or when I came to pick you up at school, or to swig on during the sermon? What if I just carried a beer around on walks through the neighborhood, or at the mall, or to teach class? I could be arrested for that. So I don't do it. I 'check it out' of the fridge when it's appropriate."
Eve was quite entertained by this set of ideas, and began to delight herself with mental images of Mom and Dad taking beer all the places people take their phones. When you think about it, it's pretty funny.
And I think I've found a potent metaphor for recreational "screen" time. Like beer. Let's choose our times and places.