Listen, Parents Have a Right to Zone Out On Their Phones


As a society, our biggest beef with smart phones is the head-in-the-sand factor—that we’re no longer aware of social etiquette or the value of human interaction. My biggest gripe goes the other way: That every time I’m trying to use my phone, people act as if I should be paying attention to them instead.

The argument goes something like this: While you were too busy on your phone, you missed your kid’s entire childhood, because you were frittering away your existence on a glowing rectangle while they pleaded with you to pay attention to them, and that’s precisely when they made friends with a future meth dealer. Also, you’re a bad person. I was heartened, then, to read a mother’s salient defense of her screen time, in which she laid bare the challenges of trying to get shit done while fielding accusations of self-absorption.

Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Susan Dominus reminds us that one major difference between screen time today and a mother’s activities of yore is the transparency. It’s not that her mother wasn’t doing other stuff too, but it was obvious what the activity was, whether she was having a phone conversation with her own aging mother, or picking up the newspaper to read the weather. Now that these activities are confined to our phones—we may message with family members, check the weather on an app, schedule a play date via email—we may as well be watching a Justin Bieber music video. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Dominus realized this while “watching” her twins’ soccer practice and reading a collection of Edith Pearlman short stories on her phone. Dominus recalls:

The boys were dribbling their way around cones; I was in the gym bleachers, moved by Pearlman’s meditations on mortality, having a bit of a moment in an unlikely place. None of this was obvious to an observer, which didn’t strike me as important until a woman a few feet away turned to me. “Look at us,” she said, with a sheepish smile, gesturing at a row of parents hunched over their devices. “Our kids are out there practicing, and we’re all on our phones.”
I flushed. I was guilty as charged! But I was almost as quickly indignant: I was wrongly accused! True, I was on my phone, and if my kids looked up they would have seen the same thing the woman did: someone slightly bored, distracting herself with some mindless electronic pursuit. That would describe me accurately in many instances, but it just so happened this was not one of them. At the moment of accusation, I was a lover of great writing who happened to be reveling in some of it on a hand-held screen. With my choice of e-book over hardcover, I had unwittingly cast myself as a familiar, much-maligned character: the mom who is blind to the daily pleasures of parenting, focused instead on some diversion which, by virtue of its taking place on that phone, is inherently trivial. The phone cruelly reduces even the worthiest of escapes to one more bit of busywork.

This may seem like a meaningless distinction—are bookworms “better” people than Candy Crush devotees? Does it really matter what you’re doing on your phone, whether it’s Proust or porn, if the point is that you aren’t engaging when you should be?

I have to say, as someone with a child, it depends. Everyone has the right to zone out into their own headspace. Parents often need this as much or more than anyone giving the soul-crushing tedium that comes with, say, potty training. What’s more, we’re not only able to “be there” for more of our kid’s lives because of our phones, which let us work from home, schedule from home, check in from home. But it’s a double-edged sword—the tool that allows you to work while caring for a sick child is the very thing preventing you from spending more quality time with your sick child.

And there are certainly lovely moments you don’t want to miss—first words, first steps, first lost tooth. But also most of the childhood memories that are great tend to be the moments you made deliberately, the times you chose to put in effort because schedules and temperaments aligned. I would argue that most people put their phones down for these things.

And yet still, the rampant calls to put the phone away. People interrupt you constantly as if whatever it is you’re doing on your phone can’t matter—as if, by design, you ought to be able to still converse, interact, answer questions, retain information, when in fact your brain is entirely immersed in an email, a 5,000 word story, a novel, a thought.

What’s strange about the constant rallying against smart phones is that, like every new innovation that is ultimately railed against, the protest hinges entirely on a nostalgic depiction of a better, simpler time when people were allegedly deeply connected and having meaningful interactions.

But the lack of such lovely, meaningful interaction has been among my chief complaints about being alive for as long as I can remember, and I went to college in the 90s. You know what people did then when they got together back then? Got high, watched bad TV, went to shows, drank a lot of beer, and talked about many a thing—but not always very deeply or intimately.

When we make this case for how kids today are skirting around the deeper issues because they are all on their phones, I feel like we have merely found an easy culprit in the smart phone for a problem hat has plagued man since the dawn of time: Shallowness. Bad conversation. Self-absorption. There have always been people who don’t want to go very deeply into the rabbit hole of existence, who aren’t necessarily interested in probing into more substantive discussions.

That’s not to say things aren’t different now. In “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” psychologist Sherry Turkle, who studied online connectivity for three decades, says that thanks to phones and our divided attention, “we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable,” and as a result, we miss out on empathy and understanding.

There’s a sense of loss when people don’t seem like they are paying that much attention to you. But again, I have to ask—did they ever? Did they really?

As Dominus writes:

But it seems safe to say that our own parents probably gave more attention to their myriad daily tasks than they did to their children, too, and even did so in their children’s presence. I see my mother, circa 1982, the bills spread out on the kitchen table, her checkbook in front of her; I hear her on the phone as she is writing down directions to someone’s house. The difference is that those tasks, by virtue of not all transpiring on one opaque device, were tangible and thus felt legitimate.

Her solution to seemingly-illegitimate smart phone use is to narrate what she’s doing—she’s emailing the kid’s teacher; texting someone about a sleepover. Her husband insists that the problem is not what she’s really doing on there, it’s that she’s going somewhere else at all, and her children don’t know how long it will be until she returns.

But alas, this “problem”—the issue of parents negotiating tasks and hobbies that don’t directly involve their children—has plagued us all since the dawn of time. Even if we all threw our devices out the window today, not much would change. And that’s okay.

Image via Associated Press.

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