Saturday, September 4, 2010

Does Technology Enhance or Interfere with Parenting?

Sophia and I were eating breakfast. She was humming to herself and I was glued to my iPhone, trying to get the weather (and a side of dopamine) with my morning coffee.

"Mommy, put down the phone and talk to me." Shame hijacked all neurological functioning as I set the device gently down on the table and apologized to my daughter.

Oh, I'm not worried that my inattention caused any lasting psychological damage to Sophia. I am generally attentive and attune to her needs. And, in my defense, I was checking the weather to figure out how to dress her and what we should do that day. But in that moment, I felt like I had been caught. Like an alcoholic taking a drink in a closet, the door flung open by my toddler, exposing my folly.

The fact is: my technology addiction is getting out of hand. I want to stop, but I’m finding it difficult to do. I have become a habitual Internet checker. I am plagued with mights: I might have a response to a resume (at 11 pm? Only 5 minutes since your last check?). I might have more hits on my blog (Another hit! Oh wait, that’s my sister again.). I might have heard back from that former classmate, okay boyfriend, I contacted out of the clear blue on FaceBook last week. (Why do I care?). All of these mights are far less important than the human being sitting before me. And yet, I check.

Psychology offers a neat explanation for my behavior: Intermittent reinforcement: On occasion I HAVE received a positive response to a job inquiry, a touching comment on my blog or a regretful note from an old love. In these moments I am rewarded for my frequent and faithful checking behavior. And because I never know when it's going to be one of these moments, if this is the time I'll get the big payload, I keep checking. Not unlike the elderly, gambling away their social security checks on slot machines.

This is how bad it’s gotten: I go online in bed, when I first wake up in the morning. I do it on the toilet. I do it while stopped at red lights, throughout my workday, while my husband is doing the dishes and can't hear me over the faucet, and just before I go to sleep at night. I’m about to do it right now.

I have incurred the disgust of my husband, the incredulity of my mom, and now this, the pleading of my daughter.

I am struggling with where I should draw the line between attending to screens and participating in real life. After all, technology has enhanced my experience of parenting in many ways. When I was in the middle of Illinois, Sophia newly weaned, and I developed painful swollen milk ducts, anonymous moms immediately responded to my listserv pleas for help and got me through those awful three days. The best purchases I’ve made—from a car seat (one of two) that was able to withstand side-impact at 70 miles per hour (Consumer Reports was only supposed to test it at 35 MPH and made a mistake) to the velvet curtains that I hung in the basement to create a theater, are thanks to the Internet. And Skype has made it possible for Sophia to call Grandpa Ben and show him her latest invented ballet steps. So, I do believe that there is a place for technology in parenting.

But how capacious a place? When does my Internet habit become problematic, interfering with my relationships, my productivity, my happiness? At what point am I substituting connectivity for connection? Right now my daughter’s plaintive expression clearly says.

And then there is the issue of me being a hypocrite. How can I, a mother who refuses to expose her daughter to television before she turns three, justify that I carry a screen with me ALL DAY LONG and--shameful but true--sleep with it safely tucked in next to me at night. How can I be so restrictive with her screen time when I have been unable to limit my own? When she finally asks why is what's good for the goose too good for the gosling, how will I explain myself? (“Honey, mommy has a problem....”).

Daddy, however, does not have a problem. I envy my husband, the Luddite, who uses technology, but is not a slave to it, who does not worship at the temple of Apple, who is able to go an entire day without checking his email. He resents the fact that when we are sitting together after dinner, if there is a lull in the conversation; I will pick up my Smartphone. It is righteous resentment. I can remember being equally resentful of an ex-boyfriend's SportsCenter addiction. He watched it every free moment, looking over my shoulder at the streaming scores when I spoke to him. Taking the dinner I made for the two of us in front of the game so that he didn't miss one precious moment. I clearly did not learn my lesson. I am making the same mistake with my dear attentive husband who wants nothing more than to listen to me and be heard.

Dare I unplug? It is hard not to get caught up in the online peer pressure. It seems like anyone who is making a success out of being online has to be online ALL THE TIME. Tweeting, Facebooking, updating their blog, sending out newsletters. It’s exhausting, and not just virtually exhausting, really exhausting. Just how is it that so many successful mom bloggers are constantly online—how have the reconciled doing so and still being a present parent?

I haven’t figured it out. But I guess if I had to choose being the most popular mom online and the most popular person in my own home; I’d choose the latter.


Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom) said...

I struggle with this all the time. Trying to limit my online time so I don't feel guilty, don't feel like I'm neglecting my family. I'm trying to schedule my computer time just like I would anything else. Some days are better than others. I want to be in the present with my children and husband but I love blogging too :)

KD said...

It's true that balance is important, but you also need to consider what your screen time is offering you. For me, it's a way engage in some mental stimulation that doesn't involve sing-song nursery rhymes (or maybe times it is nothing more than brain candy; a way to unwind). I think the very fact that you are aware of the possibility of technology taking away from your quality family time shows that you will not let that happen.

Thanks for the post - very thought provoking!

Becky said...

I also struggle with as a mom who blogs. I am becoming more aware of how often I am doing it and trying to set times to set aside to be plugged in when our little one is napping or asleep for the night.