An Analog Childhood in the Digital Age

My 20s were spent moving around, for one reason or another, and refusing to put down roots. Before always-on GPS, before the social media boom. If my parents hadn’t heard from me in a day or two they had to send my sister and her friends to hunt me down. Case in point: my phone died and I just didn’t charge it one weekend. It was nice to not deal with text messages or phone calls. So my sister — four friends in tow — showed up at my apartment at 11:00 PM one night saying “Hey, call Dad.”

Fast forward to today: Facebook is either greedy enough to sell your information or mismanaged enough to allow your information to be “inappropriately obtained” by political firms working to install a fascist government in the White House. Google pays so much attention to where you go and when you go there that it changes your home and work locations when you go on vacation (our AirBnB in New Orleans a few years ago). Your Alexa/Cortana/Google Home/Whatever are always on and have probably recorded every argument and case of bad indigestion ever since they were connected to your WiFi.

I deleted my Facebook account some time ago, primarily because it felt pervasive. It was everywhere. Covered everything. Everyone. The idea of needing to utilize this one service in order to maintain social connections felt… uncomfortable. I didn’t like the ads that were following me. I didn’t like the idea of strangers being able to look me up. Facebook is more than a phone book. They don’t just see your phone number, but your photo, friends, and whatever else you shared when you were drunk at 2am. Even if you lock down your profile and friends list, Facebook still retains the details.

But collecting user data better allows companies to serve the user!

They want to sell you things. To make money. When was the last time you saw an ad on Facebook for something that truly changed your life in a meaningful, positive way? Now, when was the last time you saw an ad for that thing you were looking for on Amazon? Yeah. I struggle to put down my phone. Just like I struggled with getting off social media. I’m not about to trot out some holier-than-thou argument to get you off Twitter. I love Twitter. If that’s your thing, get on it. But my connection to and use of social media — of the internet — needed re-balancing. I think everybody would benefit from an honest evaluation of their technology usage.

What kind of always monitored world is my kid growing up in? And how do I instill healthy, balanced technology use in my child?

I love technology. Quinn and I use Alexa, Siri, and Google daily. We use location services. GPS. We have a Nest thermostat (that Quinn snagged for free when we switched power companies, score) and smart light bulbs so we don’t have to get out of bed when we forget to turn the lights off. We drive an electric car that comes with an app that lets us see where it is, what the battery charge looks like, and even set the heater before we leave for work from our phones. We have our eyes on those solar roof tiles when we buy a house.

Well-designed technology, in a perfect world, is seamlessly integrated, highly intuitive, and minimally invasive. Thermostats that learn your schedule and mind the weather. Solar and renewable energy. Robotic surgical assistants. Serving the user. Building connections. Not selling users a lifestyle or trading personal information for dopamine hits. There’s no precedent for how the technology we currently favor will impact social or emotional development in young children. I guess I’m going to have to make it up as I go.

I want Ben to be comfortable with technology — but there’s not really any doubt he will be. What kid born in America after 2000 isn’t? But how to I keep him from becoming obsessed with it? I see so often. Small children using tablets while at dinner or at the grocery store. Phones being used as a pacifier or a substitute for interaction and conversation. I get it. Sometimes you want an easy way out. I’m here for that. It’s about survival, about getting through the day. I bribed Ben with my phone for the first time a couple of weeks ago during a too-long wait at his doctor’s office. I let him watch Moana, his current number one. And I was granted a grim glimpse of the future when I put it away: a full blown gimme-gimme tantrum. Oh hell no. I guess playing with phones is going to be off the table for the foreseeable future.

That’s okay. We have a huge yard.