I turn 29 next week, and I’m a father of two young children. And, I have screens everywhere.
I straddle a sort of generational digital fence. When I was 16, my parents limited my internet usage–for my own good, but also because we had dial-up and the internet clogged the phone line. We didn’t have cable, and the TV was on for maybe an hour a day–only approved shows.
Today, I have six devices with screens in my home. One is in my pocket all the time, and another is within easy reach. I can easily be distracted by the internet, social media, email, texts, calls, etc.
I’m not sure whether growing up before the explosion of internet access leaves me well-equipped or poorly-equipped to handle these distractions as a father. I didn’t grow up dealing with screens all the time, like my 18-year-old brother has. But at least I know something has changed–he doesn’t know any other existence (no offense, Michael–just a fact).
I don’t want my children to have to compete with screens for their father’s attention. I know that I inevitably gravitate toward screens, because they are interesting, because I’m curious and like to browse the internet to learn, because I want to see what my “friends” (however loose the connection may be) are up to, and because my TV time was so limited growing up that anytime the TV was on we all watched. I may also convince myself that I save time by multitasking: reading email on my iTouch while playing trains with my son saves me from being pulled away to read that message later–right? Wrong.
Screens let me be “present” in some limited way with my sister and her husband across the country or across the world. But they also make me absent from those actually in my presence. Screens connect and disconnect.
Whenever I talk about digital media I am reminded of a couple of “pre-internet” books I find useful: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Daniel Boorstin’s seminal work The Image. Since then, reading on both sides of the digital divide: people such as Nicholas Negroponte and David Weinberger and Howard Rheingold (cheerleaders) and Mark Bauerlein – who has pretty damning evidence, and Thomas de Zengotita who I think is divided (but cusses when he writes so undergrads will think he is “cool” and “hip”), I find I land with Bauerlein. My New Year’s Resolution is to turn off my phone during work hours and only check it twice a day to answer the texts that have come in and listen to and return voicemail. I am hiring a “virtual assistant” to screen my emails (and book my travel and other such things). I’m also getting an office off-site on Friday (in other words, outside my home for the first time in six years), so that when I come home there will be a clearer delineation between home and work. I find I just don’t read as much as I did a few years ago and I blame my computer. It makes it easier to read more, but in a hyperlinked way that I find inhospitable to deep, complex reading and thinking. Bauerlein says that these screens are creating The Dumbest Generation. I’d like to get back to being less twitchy (Internet reading encourage twitchy reading in me) and becoming more productive an personally interactive. I’ll be happy to let you have a gander at Bauerlein’s book when you come out in a few weeks and we can discuss it.
You must be the master of your screens. I have found it useful to make policies for myself, as Marc seems also to have done. One of my policies is that when I am with a person I am not permitted to look at a screen. I physically pivot away from the computer or go into another room, do not allow myself to pull out my phone as long as I am conversing with the person. I make eye contact and give my full attention. This practice shows honor.
1 Tim 4:7 says “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Walking in God’s ways means recognizing the habits and temptations that pull us away from being with Him in the moment and partnering with Him in His work. Recognizing these things, we mindfully reject them and choose the better way.
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