Since becoming a mom, I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast or where I put my keys, but I still have solid memories from childhood. My brother, sister, and I spent summer days on our Slip ‘N Slide and then played Kick the Can and Ghosts in the Graveyard. We’d go running for quarters when hearing the Good Humor truck, then devour Bomb Pops, Chipwiches and Snow Cones. And in the winter, we’d build forts, play Sorry, and have dance contests.
Of course, we also had screens.
I was six years old when we got our Atari game system. Saturday afternoons were spent killing aliens, racing cars, and avoiding ghosts. This, of course, was after a morning overdose of cartoons. On weekday afternoons, I’d rush home to catch Double Dare, always hoping my turn would come to try the awesome obstacle course. And then it was an evening of sitcoms. I may have grown up with Mark and Megan from down the block, but I’d be lying if I said Punky Brewster and Arnold Jackson weren’t just as much parts of my childhood.
So why, judging that I turned out reasonably okay, am I freaking out about my daughter’s use of screens?
Because she’s only one and I’m fairly certain that at one, I was still playing with stacking toys and reading with my mom. Of course, my daughter does that stuff, too, but she also grabs my dad’s hand and signs that she wants him to show her one of the slideshows he put together documenting her 18 months of life. She reaches for my mom to pick her up, not to show affection, but rather to tap on the cell phone she’s holding. And when I change her diaper, she’ll only calm down if I hand her the remote.
She is addicted. And it is not good.
In my youth, when I was on screens, it was arcades and laughing and parties . These days, it seems different. I picture kids alone in basements, virtual reality glasses pressed against a computer, hyperactive fingers jumping on keys. It’s dark, lonely, and depressing. They’re the same kids in my classroom who scramble for their iPad before morning announcements like it’s coffee -- a necessity, and withdrawal-inducing if the need isn’t met. And if they’re growing up anything like my daughter, I almost can’t blame them.
The first time Autumn met her grandparents was on a screen. COVID was running rampant, and visitors weren’t allowed in the hospital, so we Facetimed. Her entire first year we barely left the house due to the pandemic, and so faces on screens replaced real-life interaction. She became a regular during my dad’s HOGS (Happy Old Guys) Zoom meetings, rocked out weekly at virtual music classes, and ‘interacted’ with Auntie Robin and Uncle KeKe only through technology. And I was nothing but grateful for these frequent windows to the outside.
It must be confusing for her -- because it’s certainly confusing for me.
After all, I’m addicted to my phone. My apps are among my best friends. Waze gets me to work on time, Starbucks buys me coffee, and Chase deposits my checks. How did I ever survive without them? I can justify my own screen use when I feel it’s increasing my productivity — which is often. And so I try to reason with my daughter when she wants to play with my phone.
“It’s not a toy. It’s a tool,” I say. “It’s not for babies.”
And why is it not for babies?
Because there’s research that dictates screens are bad. That they rot people’s brains. And when those people are only 19 months old, their minds are especially malleable. I picture her brain like dough that needs to be shaped and cooked. As we read and sing, the dough starts to mold into something that looks more like an organ with all the crevices in the exact right places. Then with each screen exposure, a ray penetrates, making it weaker and more misshapen. And how many exposures will it take before it affects her ability to read, move, or write?
A line needs to be drawn. But should it be a solid one that goes on forever in both directions, or a segment, with ways around it for certain circumstances? Or should we make it dotted so she can cross over it from time to time like changing lanes? Can she watch home movies? What about Facetiming with family, but then how often and for how long? And the virtual Hanukkah concert coming up this Sunday, is that okay because it’s a special occasion? But how many special occasions are allowed per month, or year, or lifetime?
When I figure it out, I’ll get back to you. In the meantime…