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Doctor’s Confession Highlights Underlying Problem with Screen Addiction

Writing in the New York Times, Dr. Lisa Pryor concludes of her family’s screen addiction (yes, she’s addicted, too):

Perhaps my writing this is just an attempt to wash away guilt, but I have even made peace with our love of poor-quality screen time, so long as we are still doing the other things that make up a good life. There are too many problems in the world worth worrying about for bourgeois parents like me to waste energy and resources perfecting and regimenting our little worlds.

And what is this teaching my children? I hope it is teaching them that it is O.K. to waste some of the 24 hours in a day. I hope it is teaching them that there is value in making space in your life for laziness and pleasure, for the purposeless passing of time.

“The purposeless passing of time.” It sounds innocent enough, right? Even free range parents probably view their child’s obsession with roaming the outdoors as a rather meaningless way to pass the time to some degree. After all, in our career-driven culture that’s what childhood is, or any period of time you aren’t working or learning how to work, for that matter: meaningless. But, when it involves your kids, the term “meaningless” has an awfully negative connotation, doesn’t it? After all, these are the lights of our lives, the suns around which our humble little earths revolve. Everything in our child’s life is imbued with meaning, isn’t it?

Well, quite frankly, yes it is. My mother had the habit of reminding me many times over that “everything matters.” In Judaism, we learn that everything from waking in the morning to washing our hands to what we put into our mouths and what comes out of them over the course of the day matters. “Everything is a link in a chain,” my mother always explained. If I didn’t wash my hands, I could get sick and not be able to stay up late for a special event. Every action has a reaction; every cause has an effect.

So it goes with screens. The doctor points out that her children, ages 5 and 7, don’t even play video games anymore. They prefer to watch YouTubers play the games instead. She admits it’s strange, but chuckles it off while detailing that her own screen addiction involves plopping her laptop into a basket of laundry lest she miss a minute of Real Housewives while walking up the steps. Life is so busy, so complex, and so full of meaning that we deserve the meaninglessness. We crave it and we should reward that craving.

What is so difficult or complex to a 5- or 7-year-old, she doesn’t say, but I have an idea. When parents are so wrapped up in their own lives that they feel the need to plop their child in front of a screen (or reward him with a smartphone), that child knows he is being ignored. His parents’ actions cause a chain reaction of complex emotional feelings and potentially harmful thoughts, all of which are quelled by the instant gratification of a screen. The first thing my 2-year-old son does when he realizes his father has gone to work for the day is beg for the television. Curious George distracts him from the fact that his daddy isn’t home to play. This is, perhaps, the deepest reason why he loves George. Not because he’s a smart, funny monkey who goes on great adventures, but because he’s a reliable distraction from some painful feelings he still can’t put into words.

This is why screen addiction results in poor communication skills, negative habits like overeating, and psychological disorders. When you’re being spoken to you don’t need to speak. Screens speak to us. They silence the difficult, painful thoughts we can’t or don’t want to confront on our own. Parents are supposed to be the filter through which we explore and express these emotions, especially for the first three years of our lives, but continually throughout adolescence. When parents are screen addicts, what hope do children have?

What Pryor fails to observe is that the seemingly meaningless is actually ripe with meaning. I’m not talking about the hour out of your day that you finally get to put your feet up and tune out. What I’m talking about is the seemingly endless stream of screen media flowing freely throughout a household via multiple devices on a daily basis. When so much time, money and energy is spent on the meaningless, it becomes meaningful, whether you intend it to be or not.