On screen rage, distraction and the benefits of internet fasting
Desert Sage column
Sometimes I write my column by hand before typing it out. I sit at a raked writing desk, the kind that sits on a table top. The lid opens on a hinge with space below for writing paper, pens, envelopes and stamps; closed, it provides a smooth and angled writing surface.
The sorting of thought into words behaves rather like my fountain pens, starting drily and gradually flowing smoothly from hand to page. When I settle in, the hand and the pen may surprise me with some utterance, some choice of word or analogy I did not see coming. There may or may not be music playing.
This piece, however, I write on a laptop, my eyes gazing into the light of the screen, my fingers hammering a keyboard instead of drawing letters with a pen. The sentences are halting at first, like a browser running slowly on boot-up, and just as they get going, a pulse of light from the mobile phone. I check it; of course I do. What if it’s something important?
It’s a meme posted by a guy I haven’t seen or spoken with since 2001. “Depluralize a film. I’ll start. Jaw.” He and other people I once knew are already posting all of the good ones: “A Lion and Prejudice.” “The Postman Always Rings.” “One Candle.” Quickly, I add “The Cook and No One Else” before moving my eyes back to the laptop, having lost whatever thought I had started to express.
When writing by hand I have taken to dropping the phone into the writing desk and shutting the lid on its flickers and prompts. The phone is a tool for constant use at my job; at home, I have been trying lately to put it up on a shelf when I’m home and my children are awake.
Also, we’ve recently banned almost all recreational use of computers in our household for the rest of the year, so it’s hardly fair to be checking out Twitter around them.
I did not believe “screen rage” was an actual phenomenon until my children flew into category 4 cyclones when asked to turn off their devices for the night. It is more disturbing to see toddler-tantrums persist in a teenager as tall as me. Other families report similar outbursts around electronics.
When we enforce breaks from these things, our children soon begin to play and sing, ask questions, run and jump, discover things; but the gray fog rolls back in when we reintroduce the electronics and the children sink into the furniture, gazing into the palantir and soon flying into rages again.
It hardly seems better for the adults ― to the extent that species exists. At the Sun-News, my colleague has a post-it note on his computer monitor reminding him, “Never read the comments,” yet sometimes we cannot help ourselves. What a Boschian hellscape of screaming sock puppets (which is how I visualize anonymous internet accounts), badly formed minds, epistemic stubbornness, grift and psychic violence is "social media." There are, on the other hand, cat videos.
How much of that do any of us truly need? Is it serving our health and happiness? How much is it harming us?
Our home, as it happens, holds some store of books, musical instruments, toys and art supplies, as well as doors that open onto relatively safe outdoor spaces, which is where children belong much of the day anyway. My teenager seems pleased to go running with me along a quiet frontage road at sunset. Another child is exploring ghost stories, and another climbs on top of me to discuss elephant furniture, the powers of mushroom superheroes and soccer strategy.
Yet it is hard to exert control. The devices have a way of creeping back. Besides the strength of addiction, electronics are interwoven into so much of our interactions, and my son submits most of his schoolwork online. I see his laptop, but he doesn't seem to have any schoolbooks.
Let us say a word about attention. The sight of young children with devices in their hands is smoke, and the fire is busy parents, tired parents, distracted parents.
What is revealed when the devices are put away is that what our children want most of us all, still, is us. They are also learning how to be with themselves and with others. There is no app that will replenish an inner life lost; and if we cannot love ourselves, we can forget about cherishing others or our world.
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