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We may not look like it, but my wife and I are tyrants. At least when it comes to technology and our kids.
We have said no to smartphones, and we plan to keep saying no. Our son, aged 12, and our daughter, aged 11, don't have them, making them almost unique in their classes. Many of their friends have had devices for years. Our ongoing family joke (which our kids don't find that funny) is that they can get one when they are 22. They know we are semi-serious, as they have never had a phone, an Xbox, PlayStation or even a hand held Nintendo DS. They are not on any social media sites nor do they have e-mail addresses. Yes, it has been a screen time dictatorship in our home and our two little prisoners have not always been happy about it.
That said, it is not a complete screen-deprived jail sentence. They get to watch some TV, mainly on weekend mornings and when we have family movie nights. Oh, and we did buy them an iPod years ago when there were still iPods that just played music.
The plan is to keep this tyrannical regime going for as long as we can. Why, you ask?
We don't want them to become the kids who spend five hours or more a day on social media or who check their phones what seems like every few seconds.
Then there are concerns about obesity, or the increase in teen anxiety and depression associated with social media. According to Jean M. Twenge in her 2017 book, iGen, extended use is directly connected to feelings of being left out, inadequate, bullied or lonely. Did you know there is even a new term for this? "Facebook depression."
What about social skills? We don't want them to be nervous ordering a meal at a diner or a pizza by phone because their main form of connection with peers is through texting. We also don't want to be the family who sits in a restaurant and doesn't talk because everyone is on their device of choice.
When it comes to school, we don't want our kids struggling because they are half asleep after using their phones late into the night. Or because they are distracted in class while trying to covertly text their friends or can't focus on the teacher after becoming over-stimulated by hours of video games.
We don't want them to become people who are uncomfortable just sitting and watching the world go by, people who are constantly checking messages and playing Subway Surfers.
What is the effect of no phones or video games in our house? It is noisier, messier and busier. Because we say no to many of the entertainment choices their friends have, we try to say yes to other requests. We will almost always agree to having their friends over, or for them to go for a bike ride and explore the neighbourhood, or to have a sleepover. We say yes to craft projects, water fights, baking experiments and fort building that we know (despite their sincerest promises) will make an almighty mess. We try to say yes as often as possible to joining them in a soccer match or a board game (when often we really don't want to…I can't stand Monopoly!). This year, I finally said yes to building a tree house (way out of my comfort zone) and now they sit up there with their friends and chat and play cards.
They will still occasionally say they are bored, at which point we suggest extra chores. They quickly find activities to do.
What have been the benefits? They obviously don't spend hours texting or checking social media alone in their rooms. They get outside and play more, they draw, they are ridiculously social and they often surprise us with how they decide to spend their time. Just this week my daughter taught her friend how to knit, and she rediscovered the Lego box with another buddy, playing with it for two hours. They read lots. Earlier in the year, my son, in a moment of reflection, said he never would be so good at soccer if he had a PlayStation or cellphone.
My wife and I also try to model behaviour and this again can be tough. We limit our own use of the laptop, we sit with them and read, and we join in on their games. My wife has an iPhone, but I have not succumbed, partly because I don't feel I need one and partly to show my kids that even a grown-up can survive without one.
As they approach high school, we wonder if they will be ostracized. Will they miss out on social get-togethers that are so often organized last minute with texts? We hope their friendships will be stronger than that.
Parenting has always been challenging and has always involved difficult choices. No one can prepare you for the sleepless nights, the constant emotional and physical demands, and the pressure of making decisions that may mess up your kid for the rest of their life. And yet without getting too melodramatic, it feels like we are at a moment in history like no other. How do we best parent in the smartphone era? At what age should we say yes to these time-zapping technological wonders that may make kids feel more connected and paradoxically more isolated?
Like most parents, at the end of our children's "growing up" journey, we want them to be kind and happy. We want them to have friends and to socialize effectively and to find interesting hobbies. We want them to achieve success in school and end up in careers they find fulfilling.
Saying no to a smartphone probably makes that journey to adulthood a little unusual in today's digital age, and maybe a little more complex and challenging. So yes, we are tyrants, but hopefully the good kind.
Anthony North lives in Paris, Ont.