The other day a simple and all too regular event crystallised my understanding of how limiting it is now to be a child.
I was driving the car back home from school. The radio was playing an interesting item about archaeology on the BBC. I started to talk about the story and turned for a response from my 13-year-old daughter, sitting in the passenger seat.
She was looking ahead, staring blankly. Then I noticed the tell-tale white cables poking from beneath her hair. She had her ear-phones in and was oblivious to my musings. I’d like to say she was listening to something edifying. But, the reality is that she was tuned to her music playlist.
This is not an irregular occurrence. I know, I know. A parent should insist that children don’t wander through life permanently plugged into their smartphones. But the reality of parenting is that child-rearing is about picking the battles to fight over.
A daily row with a child who wants to listen to a song on her way home from school is not a good use of my time. Anyway, we have agreed a compromise. Radio 4 on the way to school, their music on the way back.
It’s a little sad though. Ear-phones stop children from having incidental revelations. They preclude, not just a thought-provoking feature on a speech-radio channel, but also the conversations of their parents. Conversations which, eavesdropped on, will help school them in life.
There’s nothing completely new in my reservations. Parents have excoriated their children for decades about ‘closing themselves off’ with everything from comic-books to Walk-Mans.
But, it seems to me, that the smartphone represents a new order of threat for my generation of parents.
It’s not just music, but everything which the internet on the move can provide.
And a recently published book tackles some of the questions raised by parents with deep misgivings like me.
Mark Bauerlein, is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future.
In an interview with Time magazine he offered this summary of his book: “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.”
This, I would submit, is of considerable interest. The Home Renaissance Foundation, which sponsors this blog, believes that the home can be the setting for the transfer of wisdom and life-skills between generations. But, as Mark Bauerlein suggests, that transfer can’t happen if a teenager is permanently plugged into an electronic device where the only ‘conversation’ is by text and between people of the same age.
It doesn’t matter if grandma is there in the sitting-room, the smartphone – effectively – means she isn’t. When a child is attached to a smartphone, there is only one person with whom that child is sharing their home, and that is the person who is responding on Instagram, the friend on Facebook, the fellow-teen on Snapchat.
What to do? Well, the tide feels pretty irresistible, but we might at least be able to slow the inundation.
So we can insist, as this blog and many other people have argued before, that certain spaces in the home are smartphone-free. ‘No texting at the [dining] table!’, as the brilliant Canadian comic Anita Renfroe sang in her wonderful celebration of modern parenting ‘The Mom Song’.