United 1229 to Dallas is delayed—of course. A handle on a baggage compartment is broken and seat 24A is already squishy—we have not even left the gate. The middle-aged gentleman in 23C is snoring up a storm and my plan to watch Netflix for the next four hours is toast as my battery is nearing zero percent. As my phone powers off, I force myself to feel OK about spending the next few hours with no phone and only my thoughts to keep me busy. The phone addiction is powerful, but it must be beatable—maybe.
It’s a quarter to six on a school night. The initial attempt, in a healthy, mild-mannered tone—“Please pause the video and come downstairs for dinner.”
“Five minutes, please.”
Ten minutes later … “It’s been more than five minutes, now, please!” The tone firmer and patience waning. With the savvy of a YouTube expert, the space bar is tapped to begrudgingly pause the umpteenth video on whatever the addictive algorithm spewith.
As this child between ages 5 and 15 stomps irritably to their plate of lasagna, the extension of the “come down now!” tone blurts out, “Why are you always on that laptop? Go outside and run around—it’s fun.”
Child snaps back with a tone that is both too disrespectful and justifiably full of confidence; the response will be both biting and objectively true: “You are always on your phone! In the bathroom, at the supermarket, in bed, at meals, sitting randomly in the car after pulling into the driveway looking for a quick hit of the tech drug.”
The reality is that we cannot live without our phones. Is it addiction?—maybe; is it utility?—definitely! Everyone implicitly feels it, but it’s not often stated. So … to state the obvious—bear with me while I take you on a utilitarian journey. A watch is now necessary to flash wealth and useful between candle lighting and Saturday night. Maps—pointless. Flashlight—bottom left corner of the screen. CD player, MP3, camera, video recorder, GPS—nope all around. Those are basics. With Teams, Outlook, Zoom, Slack, Google Drive and other apps available, most work can be done from anywhere—no desk required.
The fact is, social media aside, the efficiency a phone provides to adults makes giving it up impossible. Even curbing usage is difficult.
All this leaves parents with the less-than-ideal “do as I say, not as I do” impasse. Even though the “it’s for work,” “I need to respond to a quick question” or “the shopping list Mom gave me is in the AnyList app” rationale is logical, our children still simply see us, necks down, thumbs bopping away and eyes glued. The utility is unquestionably there, the time saving of using a smartphone is profound, yet the impression on children that phone usage is a fundamental aspect of life is unavoidable.
Truthfully, there is a seemingly ideal state of being—sleepaway camp. Sending children to sleepaway camp, while nowhere near as “roughing it” as in the ’80s and ’90s, is a trip back to the technological Stone Age—and it’s wonderful. Technologically, my experience in Honesdale, Pennsylvania circa 1999 is very similar to the 2022 version. Printed emails from loved ones with a pen, paper and stamp as the return mechanism.
On the other hand, the parental experience in 2022 is radically different. Nineties parents experienced an informational black hole. No longer do parents need to await a scribbling of a few words on a postcard to check in on their little ones. Thanks to the power of digital photography and facial recognition software, the 7 p.m. phone vibration means a new batch of pictures of one’s child has been uploaded to a well-designed app specifically designed for parents of children at sleepaway camp. There it is—technological perfection—the kids in tech lock up for a month while parents leverage fancy software to receive frequent updates. Alas, as soon as the bus pulls in, the children are back on devices before even showering off the camp grime.
With utility and efficiency creating powerful addiction in adults, and our children learning from our modeled behavior, is there a solution to the problems everyone identifies? Is it even reasonable for us to ask our children to shut the devices when we, ourselves, are incapable of that?
One lens to consider is “intentionality.” Intentionality is an antidote to social media, YouTube and zombie-like device usage. A key measure of success amongst app developers is the number of minutes a user spends on an app each time it is opened. Whether it’s scrolling through endless Reels and TikToks or the clever feature that auto-starts the next YouTube video, efforts are made to keep eyeballs in the app for as long as possible. Next thing you know, it’s been 45 minutes of scrolling through, in my case, golf swing improvement videos on Instagram or whatever the algo-monsters throw your way. Intentionality counters this effect by thoughtfully, intentionally planning a schedule that limits blocks of time that seemingly disappear into device abyss.
Intentionality comes in various forms—play dates, sports and other recreational activities, family outings and park visits are examples. Thoughtfully planning how our children will spend their non-school hours can help avoid endless hours on YouTube. There is no denying the parental exhaustion and monetary cost of shuttling kids from baseball to soccer to piano while another has football and basketball and tuba and a third has dance, chess, gymnastics and another trip to the soccer field. The grind is brutal and it’s so much easier to let the children roam YouTube all Sunday while we adults veg on the couch—phone in hand, of course.
It is certainly not much fun to load the kids in the car and chase them around a playground not designed for those above 48 inches tall. It is even less thrilling when the children complain about going and look for every excuse known to man why they should be allowed to stay home and “keep watching.” But … once the kids get going on those monkey bars, playing tag while running up slides to the consternation of the “slide down only” crowd and giggling uncontrollably, a sigh of joy will be felt as vibes of tech-less yesteryear nostalgia percolate.
Intentionality does not mean “no devices” nor does it mean over-programming our children. While I lean towards over-programming versus the under, children definitely need downtime to relax, shut their brains and veg out—just like adults. But be intentional about those times. Time should specifically be set aside for children to relax with their devices. Avoiding haphazard, unintentional device usage is taking the upside from the app developers without succumbing to their addiction-creation objectives.
The negative externalities of the technological explosion of the past decade and upcoming advances currently on tech start-up drawing boards are unknown and the future of technology, to me, looks bleak. Solutions are limited but we must start somewhere—my plan is to attempt to stay intentional.
Shlomo Yaros is addicted to his phone but also tries to be a baseball, dance, soccer, basketball, piano and art dad.