Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In defense of smartphones: the stay-at-home parent's perspective

Posted By on Tue, Sep 24, 2013 at 2:58 PM

Well, it's that time again - we're having a big hate on smartphones. First, it was that viral "I Forgot my Phone" video. Now it's Louis C.K. giving voice on Conan to a major millennial concern; apparently our phones have turned us into isolated islands of Facebooking and Tweeting, and apparently we're incapable of setting them down and simply "being human" (by his definition, humanity is judged by our ability to suffer existential crises in quiet moments). Judging by massive FB shares and retweets, it seems people are rushing to their smartphones to agree.

Sigh. Not gonna touch that last bit of irony, but I'm still here to call bullshit.

The central premise of this argument - that a piece of popular technology can alter human nature and even damage our social framework - seems fundamentally flawed. And to suggest such a sea change came about within the past five years or so seems fairly short-sighted. Anecdotal, pathos-begging proofs lace the glowing generalizations of inspirational short films and the snarkasm of superstar comedians; like horoscopes, these bits of wisdom and semi-logic are broad enough for the modern American to apply down to his or her own experience. What ensues is massive numbers of innocent people feeling guilty about their smartphones for - honestly - no good reason.

But I'm not going to feel bad about my iPhone, my busy Twitter feed, or any of that jazz. And I'm not going to take the predictable Luddite tack of thinking convenience or new technology are inherently bad. That's just lazy thinking.

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Like Louis C.K., I have two kids. I stay home with them five days a week - not because daycare is expensive (it is) but because it's what I prefer. I like our quiet little house-on-three-acres in rural North Carolina, and I want to be there with my young girls as much as possible - particularly before they're old enough for school.

What new stay-at-home parents tend to realize, though, is that it can be a pretty isolating lifestyle - especially at first. You're learning on your feet; you're failing as often as you succeed, all while going long, long hours without speaking to another adult. As the kids get older, that eases some - but you're still cramming any non-parenting stuff you want to achieve into nap time (which is not guaranteed). Compound that with the social changes - that your non-parent friends are unlikely to want to come to a playground at 10 a.m. and that you're less likely now to want to meet at a bar at 10 p.m. - and you very quickly find yourself in a sort of limbo: Do you abandon your old friends in favor of the ones you'll be meeting at playgrounds? Or is there a middle way? Which pre-parenting goals do you hold on to, and which do you jettison?

See, I'm also a writer and a musician, and integrating these preexisting elements of my personality into my new role as a dad took the same stumbles and starts as any parent is used to. I can say, though, that my phone makes it possible for me to keep involved in all three spheres; I've emailed successful story pitches from the playground, and I've oh-so-quietly set up interviews while holding a napping baby. And when I get a minute or two (and I literally do mean that span of time), I sometimes pick up my guitar, quick-record a riff and text it to the others in my band; we've written songs that way.

As for the isolation Louis C.K. so celebrates - yeah, I get plenty of time alone (and should I wish to grovel around in an existential panic at some point, I'm sure that'll happen - phone or not). But I also appreciate that I can stay home with my kids, but remain a valid part of the social circle I kept before I was as tied to the house. And I appreciate how easy it is to leave my phone sitting on the kitchen counter and take the kids to the park - yeah, I do that, too.

It's definitely tempting to get behind blanket statements like Louis C.K.'s; there's something attractive, if unscientific, about the myth that sometime, in the unspecified past, humans were somehow better to each other than they are today. But breaking out the pitchforks and going after a device invented to suit our busy culture, rather than the assumed vice versa, betrays an alarming absence of critical thinking - and ignores those of us who would be forced to make some pretty tough choices without smartphones.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to tweet this to 550 people ...

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