While recently traveling on vacation, I was wholly unsurprised yet continually dismayed to see the incredible hold that cellular phones have on the modern mind. My favorite example was seeing a father who had ordered fried eggs at a breakfast buffet. During the scant one or two minutes that his eggs cooked, he frantically played a game on his phone. This was despite the fact that if he had lifted his head, he could have taken in a staggeringly pretty ocean view.
I was not immune to the parasite myself. Though I had intended to completely unplug for the week, reading a novel on my phone all too easily slipped into web browsing. When appropriately chastened by my spouse, I found myself disappointed in how readily I had let the easy seduction of mindless internet use infiltrate my holiday.
Ever since I researched and wrote my doctoral dissertation on people’s relationship with mobile phones, I have kept an eye on the subject in my work with patients. Phones are an incredibly common topic in my psychotherapy sessions. Every week I listen to people relate their complicated and ambivalent relationships with overwhelming inboxes, never-quite-right calendars, text message tempests in teapots, and most of all – social media provocations and angst.
I was captivated and caught off-guard by a recent newspaper article that reported on how some parents are struggling so much with the issue of screen-time with their children, that they are resorting to hiring mobile phone parenting coaches (Bowles, 2019). The article is a great illustration of this brave new world that sees us so completely intertwined with mobile technology that we are contending with questions that were unimaginable when I was researching phone use back in 2005.
A prominent theme of the article is that parents are often unable to remember what they did for fun before they came to rely so completely on their phones for soothing and satisfaction.
“In Chicago, Cara Pollard, a parent coach, noticed most adults have gotten so used to entertaining themselves with phones, they forgot that they actually grew up without them. Clients were coming to her confused about what to do all afternoon with their kids to replace tablets. She has her clients do a remembering exercise.
“I say, ‘Just try to remember what you did as a kid,’” Ms. Pollard said. “And it’s so hard, and they’re very uncomfortable, but they just need to remember.”
They will come back with memories of painting or looking at the moon. “They report back like it’s a miracle,” Ms. Pollard said.”
I find this quite sad, though it aligns closely with my own experience in working with patients. I frequently encounter adults who are quite estranged from the concept of recreation, have forgotten about cherished old hobbies, and have even lost the capacity to just goof around. Recovering this capacity often becomes an important goal of our work together.
A second important takeaway of the article is that parents often need help enforcing limits. It can be very difficult to weather our own anxiety and any potential blowback that might result from holding to boundaries. This reminds me of a new mother I know who hired a sleep coach to help her with her infant. This mom had read all of the books and knew all the recommended procedures to follow. However, what she really needed was someone to provide support and reassure her in the face of her considerable anxiety. More specifically, she needed help tolerating her child’s frustration and crying while sticking to what she knew was right. This is an incredibly common challenge for most of us, so don’t feel too bad if you find yourself in such a struggle. Of course, if you find yourself seriously stressed or troubled by setting limits, then it might be worth addressing the topic in psychotherapy
When it comes to setting limits with children and mobile phones, it is especially hard when parents are conflicted about their own reliance on the technology. My professional and personal experience suggests that describes most adults these days. As always, it is essential that we clean our own side of the street before we begin to contemplate or challenge anyone else’s side of the street. How could we ever hope to deliberately foster values in our children that we do not embody ourselves? If we can’t see the ocean for the video game, how can we expect our children to do the same? With summer’s end and the return to school, parents everywhere are thinking about enforcing limits and reclaiming routines. Rather than focus on coaching and admonishing our children for their failings, maybe we should all consider how to reclaim recreation and pleasure while cultivating and modeling healthy, intentional relationships with technology.
Bowles, N. (2019, July 6) Now Some Families Are Hiring Coaches to Help Them Raise Phone-Free Children.The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.