A few nights ago my older son stood in the kitchen and read me this quote from the March issue of National Geographic."How big is 7 billion?" he asked.
"In years it's half the universe's age," he said. "In text messages, it's the US total every 30 hours."
That means Americans text each other 7 billion times in a little over a day. Wow. But the truly shocking thing wasn't just the number. It's that my older son stood and read a magazine out loud to me—and didn't shout at me from his room to come look at something on his laptop that he had downloaded from the Internet.
When I was growing up, we had two TVs in the house. My good friend's older brothers had Atari video games but they were a novelty. No one I knew had a computer. My little brother and I weren't allowed to watch TV during the week. After we finished our homework, we read, maybe called a friend, then went to sleep. Bedtime was 11 p.m. If I tried to call a friend past 11 p.m., my mother would have heard me dialing and would have raced down the hall to stop me. Even if I had managed to get past her auditory sensors, I would have been too terrified to make the call because I knew my friends' parents would hear the phone ring, pick up and yell at me for calling too late.
This was way before you could set your cell phone to "vibrate."
Technology was limited way back then and what was available was noisy and expensive, but then, as now, it was also a wonder. In college, I started using the computer to type papers; the library had a bunch of terminals and my close friend taught me how easy it was to save and revise your work. My grades went up, my writing improved, everything was better. I loved computers.
At my first and second jobs out of college, I sat in front of a computer all day long and typed. I still do. So how can I expect my kids to be any different?
The problem is the tremendous number of distractions available. A few nights ago I was trying to help my younger son create a survival guide for one of his characters in The Sign of the Beaver. His reading teacher had given the class an interesting assignment: The students were to supposed to create their own book, with pictures, that would give advice to one of the characters on how to survive in the forest alone. My son was going to "tell" this character how to make a bow and arrow, spear and cook a fish, stay warm, make a rain poncho, create a snare and treat himself for insect bites, among other things. My son had handwritten his survival notes and needed to sit down at the computer to type them up and write his "book." He called up a Word document on my husband's Mac, and while he was waiting for Word to open the document, he opened up his iChat account and called up a video game that let him "play" basketball.
I saw two little human faces pop upon the screen. Two of his friends were available to chat. "Shut that down," I screeched. More kids kept popping up, little words following their faces on the screen. "What is happening?" I yelled. "Get rid of them, you have work to do."
My younger son started typing. "I'm going to say my status is my Mom is yelling at me and I can't chat."
"That's right," I said.
"Some kids do their homework together on iChat," he said knowingly.
"They're not getting anything done," I snapped.
The iChat boxes kept popping up. The 10-year olds were multiplying. All these kids available to type hello. My older son came downstairs with his laptop. He wanted to show me the "talking crabs" he had put on an email to his stand-up comedy instructor. He saw me pointing at the iChat boxes and convulsing.
"Tell him to log off," he said matter-of-factly.
I should just admit that because I knew I had to write this piece, I had to restrain myself from running upstairs and typing up my notes for this story on on my Mac.
What is happening to us? Why are we all so hysterically addicted to what the Internet has to offer?
Last weekend, my husband and I and our 10-year old went to a bar mitzvah. (Our 14-year old had his own plans). The party was lovely. Great music, delicious food, funny and original decorations. The theme was Archie comics. There was a professional ping pong player to keep the kids busy and a man with a typewriter (!) who was available to type up your life story in 60 seconds. The kids were well behaved. We were having fun.
For a while, I stood with my friend, who had also brought her 10-year year old. Sometimes you love your friends as people, but not as parents. I love this friend as a person and as a parent. I normally agree with all the parenting decisions she makes, and our sons have spent a lot of time together. We were drinking Cosmopolitans and talking about the books we were reading. She was reading "Cleopatra" and had just finished "Racing in the Rain." I had just finished "Great House." We were feeling slightly drunk and well-read, a lovely feeling on a Saturday night.
Then my son came up to me. "I want a Droid, can I get a Droid?" he begged. My friend's husband had just gotten their son a Droid and he was playing games on it while my son watched him. This was what they were doing at a party? Eventually, my son became jealous and impatient and started to nag me for a Droid. The happy buzz I had going turned to rage. Finally, I begged my friend to ask her son to put the Droid away so I didn't lose my mind.
Later in the evening, the father of the bar mitzvah boy stood up to toast his wife, his sons, their relatives and all the guests. He held up a glass and said: "We're grateful for everyone who is here despite their intense school, athletic, artistic and video game/texting/iChatting commitments. Here they can see each other live, a novel concept these days."
Seeing each other live is a novel concept. Doing anything live is hard when what the computer offers is so available and entertaining. Things that were once off limits are completely accessible. We have three iPods in our house, two Macs, one Kindle and one iPad. My older son treats his laptop like his little lapdog (apologies to Chekhov). It pretty much goes everywhere with him. My younger son is a voracious reader and usually reads before he goes to sleep. But the other night I walked in and he quickly hid his iPod under his blanket. I wanted to cry.
I will pretty much let my kids read anything these days just so they don't play video games or surf the Net. My older son read all of James Frey (both his notorious memoirs "A Million Little Pieces" and "My Friend Leonard," as well as his lackluster novel "Bright Shiny Morning"). My younger son just finished Megan McAfferty's five-book series "Sloppy Firsts," "Second Helpings," etc. and is starting Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" series.
I know some people might wonder why I'm letting my kids read books with adult subject matter. I just want them to read and I want to make the experience as interesting and pleasant as possible. When my kids read books, they like to talk about what's in them. I love the discussions that ensue and I know there is a lovely, calm, restful feeling that settles over their brains when they snuggle into the couch and lose themselves in a book. You just don't get that in front of a computer or a hand-held device.
When my kids play video games, secretly download "Family Guy" or log onto Facebook or iChat, they don't talk. They just sit quietly in front of the computer, their eyes glazed, typing into the void. Though my older son recently finished "The Diary of Anne Frank" and is in the middle of reading "The Crucible" for school, he hasn't finished a book for pleasure in a while and I know it's because he's on the computer, entertaining himself electronically.
Over Presidents Day weekend, my in-laws took my younger son to their house outside Philadelphia. My mother-in-law wrote this email to my son before he went to see them: "I just put some brownies in the oven in celebration of your visit. And Grandpop went in the city and bought tickets for a new museum (American Museum of Jewish History). Of course, we will have to fit in some Monopoly and Ping Pong." It sounded so old-fashioned and so wonderful.
That said, I admit I'm waving the white flag here because most of the time I'm just as bad as my kids. I know how pleasurable it is to search for and find information right away. I know how time consuming it is to look words up in a dictionary, and how much easier it is to just type what you're looking for on dictionary.com. I know it's liberating to post whatever video catches your fancy up on your Facebook wall. It's fun to watch old episodes of "Saturday Night Live" and new episodes of "30 Rock" whenever you feel like it. I teach a two-hour writing class on Thursday afternoons and at the end of two hours I'm proud that I've managed to go that long without grasping for my Blackberry.
Before I sat down to write today, I read my email. There was a note from the Huffington Post announcing that the photos from Carine Roitfeld's last shoot for French Vogue were available. Oh, let's go see! I don't know Carine Roitfeld from a hill of beans and I rarely look at French Vogue, the magazine she edited for 10 years. But I had read about her resignation/firing in The New York Times last week and the article intrigued me. Was she pushed out or not? Apparently, her resignation had something to do with provocative pictures of young girls she ran in the March 2011 issue, which ended up being her final issue. I read one story online about Roitfeld, and then another. Then I remembered I had to get to my older son's wrestling match in by 3:45. Ten minutes had passed and I was no closer to finishing this essay about the addictive nature of the Internet and how to stop our children from becoming addicted than I was when I first sat down at the computer. In fact, I was further away because I had forgotten why I had sat down in front of the computer in the first place.
My husband doesn't think there's anything wrong with technology. He recently got an iPad for work. He loves it. For a while, he would bring it into bed and describe how easy it was to read and watch stuff on it. He started staying up later and later, pounding away on the iPad. "Please turn off the light," I'd say. Then I'd fall asleep while he continued working/playing on his iPad. "You know feng shui says you're not supposed to have electronics in bed," I said one night. My husband had given me a book about feng shui in the bedroom for our anniversary, and I had written an article about feng shuia few years ago so it wasn't like I was talking out of my butt. "Reading battery-operated toys in bed isn't romantic. According to feng shui, you're not even supposed to have a TV in the bedroom." He finally agreed to take the iPad into the bathroom.
Believe me, if it weren't for the Internet, I wouldn't be writing this column. After years of being a stay-at-home Mom, I started a blog in 2007. My blog was picked up by a New York Times blogger, which led to a teaching job, which led to an assignment writing for the Times, which led to another teaching job, which led to my having the confidence to pitch this column to the Patch. As you know, the Patch is only available online.
But we have to find limits. A story in the February Mensa Bulletin predicts within ten years we will be using "virtual retinal displays." The story was about Augmented Realty (AR) and speculated we could be walking around with bionic contact lenses in our eyes. We won't have to look at our smart phones. We might not have to ask each other for help at all.
A couple of days ago, my husband asked me if we subscribed to Sports Illustrated. I knew why he was asking; the new swimsuit issue was out. "Yes," I said. "The kids read it but it hasn't arrived yet." It came the next day. My kids were ecstatic; they fought over it. They compared it to Playboy, which they had seen at the barber shop and probably at sleep-away camp. I'm sure my 14-year old has found similar (and probably more explicit) pictures online without us knowing it. The SI photos of beautiful, young scantily clad women was a bit much for my 10-year old to absorb, but I was glad to overhear the conversations that followed between him and his older brother. "Don't touch it!" "My turn!" "You ripped it!" "You're a hog!" If they had been looking at the pictures online, the door would have been shut and I probably wouldn't have heard a word.
How much do you limit your kids' access to the Internet and how much should you?