Summer has always been a time to unwind, sit back, and enjoy life. A typical childhood summer was a time filled with going to summer recreation, swimming at the pool, playing baseball, tag, kick the can, riding bikes and building forts. Every summer seemed endless with vacations at the beach or a trip to the mountains. Summer seemed so long, it was a time for us to be bored out of our minds and we learned to create our own fun. Things have changed considerably from my perspective.
My children are not camp goers and would rather spend time at Camp Dad. As they have gotten older the summer mini programs don’t cut it anymore. Camp Dad has had to evolve into bike riding, hikes and of course, projects around the house. The mornings are cool enough to take care of these things with little interference. The afternoon sun hits and we seem to recoil to the comforts of inside. Something crept into our home unnoticed and seemed fun and almost benign. That was the electronics bug.
It started with the Wii and evolved in to iPod’s and simple apps, and then slithered its way into the computer. This bug is now present in all devices, including my cell phone. Now this bug is not a virus that can be captured by the latest virus software. In fact, it is hardly detectable until either you separate from it or it’s pointed out to you.
I noticed an increasing problem in our house. It involved my children’s irritability, fighting and an uncharacteristic sensitivity towards every word or action. It seemed something normal yet not normal. I remember as a kid when my friends and family got on my nerves, but observing my children, it was something more than that. It took some time to figure what was the agent of change in the house. It was right in front of me staring me in the face, yet I couldn’t see it. The obvious tends to elude us. The obvious was the thread of electronic games in the house.
Recalling different arguments in the house with my children always seemed to revolve around electronic game time. Wii was one of those games that the kids would play until bleary eyed and almost punch drunk with exhaustion. They became irritable towards everyone around them. This quickly ended the game for a bit of a time out. The irritability was only to be revisited the next time they hooked themselves up to the consol. It happened at shorter and shorter periods of exposure. Now the games weren’t what you might have guessed. They were Star Wars Legos, Kirby, and even Wii Sports. These weren’t aggressive games from my perspective; nothing like any of the war games out there.
At first, I thought Wii might prove to be an opportunity for fun and a little movement. The sound and color graphics on the plasma TV were outstanding. I did notice a very odd thing whenever my son would play. His body would heat up and he would look like he finished a marathon by the time he was done. On several occasions he would spike a fever over 101. Not putting things together, I thought it might be just a passing virus until I noticed it became the pattern.
I asked around why this might be happening and never got any clear answers other than the game may over activate a person’s neurology with all the electronic impulses being flashed.
I experimented by putting the Wii on the basement old school TV. He would play for the same amount of time and not have the same resulting heating up and temperature spike. Perhaps it was the TV. I don't know. The irritability was still there but to a less extent.
My wife and I have always limited TV and electronic games for our children. Time on electronics seemed to insidiously move from 30 minutes a day to a smattering of “smaller” increments sometime amounting to over 2 hours. We resorted to timers. It just seemed that this was getting out of control either way. The house took a hiatus from Wii for a long time. Things seemed to come back into balance and harmony was again restored. Wii sits in our basement for special occasions even though I would love to throw the whole thing out.
Peace in the kingdom was short lived. The irritability returned but it did not ride on the back of the Wii. At first it was hard to notice. Children can be cranky any time, so it’s hard to pin down. Growing pains are sometimes a part of it and sometimes it’s just being a kid. There was something more going on. Again, I couldn’t put my finger on it. We all get busy and some of those bugging questions are not answered until we settle down and are given some time to reflect.
I was able to figure that its return quietly moved in on the iPod and IPad in the form of gaming apps. Again, these apps seemed benign. It even slipped past us as our children would ask to see our iPhones. It was happening right in front of us but we couldn’t see it. These devices kept them occupied, quiet and out of our hair. Life was good until the irritability and fighting started again. This time the answer came faster and it resulted in limiting and even cut out usage. The items were collected, placed in the drawer, and left for another day.
We began to notice that some of the devices were missing. We thought that perhaps they got mixed up with many papers in the junk drawer. We trust our kids and wouldn’t think differently. You know where this is going before I continue. After cleaning up the kids’ rooms and clearing out their book bags, we began to find their iPods stuffed away in odd places. I felt like we were finding their stash of electronic drugs. Obviously, it was concerning and we had to do the sit down family talk.
We spoke about responsibility, telling the truth, and being open. My children didn’t feel like it was a big deal; come on – it’s only an iPod game. What could be the harm? I remember feeling a little confused, a little stupid, and a bit concerned at the same time. Either way, we cut them out completely, unsure what to do. This was totally unchartered water for us as parents. This wasn’t something to look up in a published book. Cutting the iPod out seemed to help the harmony of the household.
Yet it seemed to return in a direction that should be the most obvious. I’ve read all the Internet safety suggestions about keeping the home computer in a conspicuous spot in the house. We have ours between our kitchen and living room area. Again, it’s the obvious that eludes us.
My children love doing research on the computer. Imagine having the biggest encyclopedia in front of you every day to look up whatever your hearts desire. They would look up Greek gods, characters in books, and even look into the author’s background. This would make any parent proud. Just think, they are self-starters in charge of their own learning. It began this way but twisted into a direction that wasn’t so clear. My son began researching about a game called Mine Craft. Apparently, Mine Craft is the hot building game online. The graphics seem very old school. As an adult, I don’t find anything appealing about it. That means nothing to a fourth, fifth or sixth grader.
I saw the game and again, it seemed so benign, building virtual houses and communities. I’m thinking that it might be neat creating things virutally. I can remember playing the software game, SimCity, and building cities years ago. I really was drawn into how it was easy to create cities with all the ammenities. How many times until I get it?
Well, it wasn’t long before the same symptoms or irritability reared its head. Still making the connection seemed far-fetched. I decided to conduct an informal experiment with my son. All gaming and electronics were removed for two weeks. I explained that he wasn’t in trouble and that I wanted to see if it had any effect. Each day seemed challenging for my son. Daily, he would ask when the experiment would be over. I felt like he was experiencing withdrawal. It was like he was looking for his fix.
During the week, we participated in projects around the house and some challenging hikes. It was easy to see him come back into balance. After a while, he slowly began asking less and less about the computer usage. I’d like to say that everything was smooth sailing but it wasn’t. The computer usage was replaced by watching TV. That quickly was back to limitations. A certain level of harmony seemed to seep back into the house. “I’m bored” was a common statement heard throughout the day. Now my children have to resort to reading, playing board games, and playing outside. Imagine that, going old school like we did as children.
There is an ongoing challenge in dealing with electronics in the house. It’s something that needs to be monitored day by day, hour by hour, and even minute by minute. There has to be a better way. Until then, I'm a hawk over all electronic devices. We need to find that balance without falling into the hole.
Coincidentally at the time of our experiment there was an article in Newsweek speaking about how the electronic stimulus of all our gadgetry are resulting in a rewiring of our brains. The article went on to say how these items are causing us to disassociate, almost creating an alter-self. Check out the article if you can. It was really eye opening.
Our house is now looking to balance the use of electronics not only for our children, but for ourselves. Now, I am aware of how my times I look for a text or email message, perhaps a witty post on Facebook or what AP News might be showing. Perhaps I'm looking for my "fix." It is an addiction either way.
Are these things that important? They seem to distract ourselves from life which is happening in the now moment. Are things so bad that we need to escape? Is our fear of missing out so prevalent that is seems normal? If this is the new normal, I’d rather be the weird one.
Look around and everyone is checking their Smartphone for that next hit that we feel the need to respond. The best term that encapsulates it is, "Weapons of Mass Distraction." There seems to be a war on for your attention and electronics are the drug of choice.
Currently, my family is in active recovery of the electronics addiction. We are looking to occupy our consciousness. Imagine that, being present for life. We are working to go live everyday.
Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, stated that technology is an excellent servant, but a horrible master. Being the master of my fate is of great interest to me. Unchaining the electronic tether has to be in the forefront of our minds. We all need to write our personal declaration of independence so that we live free and be alive, not virtually alive.