Our Screens are Stealing Precious Moments from our Lives

We have all seen it: Parents with kids in a park, zoo, or restaurant whose eyes are glued to that tiny screen on their phone. Maybe they are getting an important text or checking work email. More likely, they are looking at their Facebook feed or googling the score to a game. Whatever it is, they are not really present at what looks like a family outing.

Photo by Balas Koren

Photo by Balas Koren

The other day, I met a friend at Starbucks. It was really crowded. As I scanned the room for a place to sit, I saw a father and his son, who couldn’t have been more than four. They both had their own laptops set up facing one another. Dad was glued to his, probably hoping to get some work done while “watching” his son. Multitasking. The boy was looking away from his laptop at the other adults. Most of them were absorbed in their own screens. He had the saddest expression on his face.

I’m as guilty as the next person of being glued to a screen, reading on my Nook when I could be quietly thinking or talking to the person giving me on a manicure. But I wanted to ask that child if, on this sunny day, he wouldn’t rather be playing at a park. I’m sure he would have said yes.

My iPhone is constantly intruding on my real life experiences unless I turn it off. Unlike my children, I feel compelled to answer my phone or reply to a text as soon as it pings. And I actually read and respond to email. Perhaps that’s why all of these screens drive me crazy.

I remember my astonishment at a line describing Muriel in J.D. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Banana Fish (Nine Stories):

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.”

That was a statement that defined Muriel as someone totally out of the norm back in 1953. In my house, you dropped everything and rushed to answer when the phone rang. Before the days of caller ID, you always answered the phone. What if it was important? Wasn’t it rude not to answer?

Unfortunately, my antiquated habits tie me to my iPhone. On the rare occasions I have left it home, I become very anxious. What if someone needs to tell me something important? What if folks think I’m rudely screening their calls? So while I am not constantly checking email or my Facebook feed, I am tethered to this technology just as my old phones were tethered to the wall. I get it. We all need to be available 24/7…just in case.

Remember Tune Out TV Week? It was an effort to restore family time and encourage kids to read, play outside, and actually talk to others. Now that it has morphed into Screen-Free Week, a variety of different challenges have arisen. Should kids be kept from the screens that contain their school work or books they are reading? Should they not be able to use devices to communicate things like where they are or what time they need to be picked up to their parents? Should adults without landlines surrender their screens? I know, these are extreme examples, but where to draw the line?

It feels like a real challenge to remove every screen from family life for a week. It’s much harder than unplugging a TV. Screens permeate every aspect of our lives. But do we need to allow our tiny screens to supplant life’s big moments? Can we keep them out of sight or turn them off when spending time with family? Can we turn them off when going on vacation?

Good news travels fast. Bad news will always find you. Is all of the rest really that important?

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