Meet Your Monsters

How can a mom avoid throwing her child to the tech-monsters

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

Up until COVID-19 changed everything, I’d been pretty strict in regards to screen time for my sons. They earned video game time (up to two hours on weekends) for doing well in school, exercising, cleaning up dog poop, taking out the compost and other chores; we occasionally allowed them to watch sports and movies with us. But despite the fact that all of our 12-year old son’s friends had one, under no circumstances were we ready to give in to his demands and get him a smartphone.

To say having a phone will eat him alive might seem dramatic in 2020, but what terrifies me more than the zits and the braces (more even than the fact that he will likely kiss someone, on the lips, who is not family, in the next couple years) is how that small rectangle of thingamabobs and doohickeys will feast on my son’s innocence.

Over the years, I’ve watched the young people I know lose the ability to carry a conversation at a dinner table. They’ve completely lost interest in playing tag, or swimming, or shooting hoops. When we hang with other kids in person, I feel lucky if one of them looks up from their phones when someone in the room farts.

The mom-patrol might moralize about enforcing parental controls and becoming the ultimate snooper: decoding kids’ veiled text messages, lurking on their social media accounts and tracing their online interactions. However, when I asked my mama friends how much they monitor their kids’ online lives, every one of them admitted they were doing a terrible job. Most confessed that while they have access to their screenager’s YouTube histories, they rarely, if ever, explore the paths paved by their kids’ curious brains. And now, with so many parents, like me, trying to balance working from home, parenting, their kids’ schoolwork, and their own mental health, at the end of the day, few of us have the energy (or time) to mine through our kids’ online lives.

Surely, the majority of grown-up smartphone users aren’t much more evolved than their kids. Whether it’s being plugged into our work email 24/7, playing Fantasy Football, constantly checking the news, or posting our workouts and too-big hats onto Instagram, the roaring in our pockets proves impossible to ignore. According to varying reports (before COVID-19), the average adult checked their phone over 50 times a day and spent more than 21 hours a week on it. You guys, do the math: we basically spend the entire month of February on our phones. Now with social distancing, scientists warn us that the numbers will spike higher and higher.

Certainly, I’m no better than you: the heavy breathing of that little device begins the moment I wake up. I try to put my head under the covers and ignore the growling nerve cells in my prefrontal cortex that beg for me to check if the internet’s tendrilled fingers delivered any rainbows while I slept. Understanding my own addictive nature, I’ve forced restrictions on myself: storing It on another floor of the house when I sleep, not looking at It until after I meditate and trying my best to ignore Its snarl by dinnertime, disbanding notifications, trying not to have It on my desk when I work, deleting certain social media apps, and since Coronavirus appeared in our lives, turning it off from Friday night to Sunday morning to give my fear a chance to chill out — anything to quell the grasp this beast has on the nucleus accumbens part of my brain.

Yet the second I see that black rectangle in the morning and press my fingerprint to the screen, I can babble all I want about restrictions that make me feel in control, but the truth is that creature lures me in with a mess of straight-up bullshit. Like what? Not a damn thing. My horoscope. Email promotions from ThredUp. Handwashing song videos. Free workout videos. How many people liked that picture of my kid on Instagram. That’s when the consistent “checking” begins; every question beckoning me to the screen: Is there a bra size between B and C? Why do my eyebrows grow so much faster as I get older? Are there really exercises that can get rid of granny flaps? Suddenly (and this was before COVID-19) a gal like me, a tame user by comparison to most, was averaging an hour and a half on my phone — a day.

Harder for me to digest is on day 13 of self-distancing, I averaged over three hours.

Clearly, I’m aware, as you are, of the science warning us that this tiny terror changes the composition of my brain. Overreliance on our devices gives us what scientists are calling Digital Amnesia, effectively gobbling up brain cells with each new task demoted to our AI. In fact, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute recently released a study saying phone-addicted teenagers’ figural memory, the part of our brain that makes sense of shapes, is less functional than previous generations. More terrifying are the studies proving our Digimon-influenced reward transmitters in our brain chemistry show similarity to drug addicts’. Throw in that these ogres change the physicality of the body as well. Beyond eye strain and headaches, our arcing necks hunched like old witches over our devices raise the fears reported by a June 2019 study (which has flaws but works as a metaphor for the physical effect of digital addiction) saying that young people are growing horns to help them bow their heads to their phones.

Worse than the physical and mental shapeshifting is the correlation that too much staring at a screen lessens our melatonin release, leading to a lack of sleep, which then amps up anxiety and depression and suicide risk. According to professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Jean Twenge, young people who spend five hours or more on devices a day are 71% more likely to have at least one major suicide risk factor. She’s talking depression, anxiety, extreme loneliness. Five hours. That’s it. Think about our kids’ days at the moment. That’s all their schoolwork, playing video games, watching TV, social media time, texting, FaceTiming grandma combined. Optimal amount of time? She argues if they need to have a device, then they should only spend 1-2 hours on it. Tops. Each minute more opens the door to diminished mental health. And the science is there to support her claims. Teen depression rates have skyrocketed in the last decade since we put these devices in their hands. And worse, teen suicide rates have increased by more than 50%.

But, of course, to prove all this, I had to go online, you know, just to check.

There is no way for me to even begin to catalog all of what terrifies me about my 12-year-old having a monster like this in his pocket. I could address my fears about his balls or his ear being in constant close proximity to radiation; or dive into the ethical concerns of what’s lurking underneath the wires, collecting all of our data and using it for god knows what. How we’re giving the lecherous companies hiding out in the shadows access to our babies so they can track our children’s locations and search histories, swipe their identities, clear bank accounts, slash their good names, or actually physically get their warty hands on the innocents who meander straight into their lair. In a recent conversation, my son’s soccer coach, who’s also a data security expert, told me how Facebook has been urging teens to upload a VPN that mines all their phone and web activity. We’re giving them free rein thinking they’re simply playing tag with the Monsters Inc crew.

But for me, standing over the murky waters filled with creatures lurking at the depths, what I can’t ignore at this precise moment in my son’s brain development, and what seems the most horrific aspect of giving him his own smartphone, is that I will be knowingly taking away his freedom. Unlocking the world to him cannot be undone. I’m not merely likening this to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, though constant access to the internet will allow him to watch mass shooter video footage, become acquainted with how much the internet — ok, ok, the planet — truly hates women, read all the hate spewed by people too scared to live real lives. Indulging in a taste of addiction, all at an age when insecurity and doubt already make him question his self-worth, seems a cruel sort of torture to inflict upon a developing brain. On any brain.

For even the most secure adults, seeing others put their selves out for public view requires a deeper understanding of the performative aspects of our digital lives — as you would clearly know from seeing my Instagram, there are never tantrums in our super smiley family, and I spend every day in some far flung locale sipping sparkling wine.

But young people have to contend with the majority of their social lives happening in public view. Numbed by an excess of shocking images, young people are now reported to curate Finstagram accounts (a fake Instagram account) to present their “unfiltered” or “real” selves sans inhibitions. Teens zap tit-pics (or worse) via Snapchat or Tik Tok before considering who will retain access to these photos and videos. And this doesn’t just damage the sender. The young boys and girls who have these images on their phones can be charged with child pornography. This can be up to 30 years in prison for a first-time offender. All this creates an artificial state of reality curated for shock and awe likes that belittles meaningful human connection.

And most parents aren’t doing jack to help our youth negotiate the monstrous effects of all this. We sit up here, bitching and moaning about our kids’ addictions, nagging them to stop staring at their screens, when we’re the ones who put this beast in their care. A mom on the soccer field recently justified her decision to give her 12 and 14-year-old boys unlimited screen time, saying that part of our job as parents is to allow them to learn how to control their impulses. But how many of you would let your teenager go buck wild with as much vodka as she liked until she realized the implications of barfing for ten hours straight? Or steal the car, tripping on acid, and go on joy rides with all their friends? Or let your kid spend hours in the bathroom whacking off to . . . ugh, I can’t even begin to imagine what young boys can use for inspiration.

Surely, I am not proud of how I sampled my own newfound moments of independence at 12 — sneaking peeks at my dad’s Penthouse magazine with my neighbor; bullying a girl with a large nose by ducking every time she turned around on the playground; writing about other girls’ clothing choices in our Slam Books (the ’80s equivalent to social media comments); or even letting boys touch my boobs way younger than I should have.

But meeting my own beastly pre-teen nature seems tame by comparison to the monstrous fictions available to our children on the web. Seeing our planet’s ogres lurking under the bed in 2020 goes well beyond the fact that you can’t un-see the insane amount of porn available, or how cruel we can be without true accountability.

The monstrosity we call modern living proves more toxic than the challenges previous teens faced. These young people must contend with the reality that their planet might not be habitable in their lifetimes, that getting into (and affording) university is not a guarantee of a fruitful career, that a virus is unraveling life as we know it. We inform them they’ll be strapped with the claw marks of our generation’s selfish decisions, then expect them to play by the rules.

A San Francisco librarian, and a mom mentor of mine, recently explained how her teenager now questions the validity of any guidance she attempts to offer him — no matter how peer-reviewed, nor well-researched this might be — saying that he can find alternate facts online. This is a kid who has been educated in the most progressive private schools in San Francisco. And as Petrakis so wonderfully put it, with access to the gazillion perspectives available online, we can “remove the connection of trust among us [read: parents] as swiftly as the cravings themselves come” for our kids. Their ability to manipulate these creatures enables them to unravel human connections by questioning foundational knowledge, and even tweaking science to serve their nascent belief systems.

For now, my 12-year old says he wants a phone not to question my authority, but to connect with kids his own age. He claims that we live in Santa Cruz — Silicon Valley’s playground — a small beach community just over the mountains from Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, where just about everyone has a phone. Most of his friends and cousins, even the younger ones, have mobile phones already. When making his case, he explains that everyone in his elementary school class was involved in a group text chat, which he was left out of because he didn’t have a phone.

And he’s right. When I first toured middle schools, the science teacher instructed the students to pull out their phones to research. When I complained about the hypocritical nature of a school having a “strict” cell phone policy while teachers allowed their students to use these fearsome beasts in class, the principal just said that they don’t have enough Chrome books for all the students, so why not take advantage of resources available to teachers. And besides, he shrugged, “No one ever complained about it before — everyone has one.”

This is the new peer pressure to terrorize parents.

No one wants their kid to be some social leper by not having a phone. The parents who have given in often liken the cell phone to the modern equivalent of Air Jordan’s in the ’90s; or Guess jeans in the ’80s. They know there’s no comparison between a sweet pair of kicks and a device that can show videos of a woman having anal sex with an alpaca, but still, many parents sing the praises of the double-headed dragon justifying their convenience. Before we went into lockdown, at family parties, every kid is entertained by glowing ogres. Since none of them need us to parent, all the moms and dads are out on the patio getting blitzed and feeling like our old pre-breeder selves. Now, them being on their devices allow us to work from home.

The parents pontificate about the cookie crumb trails of convenience — such delicious morsels, we tell ourselves, to be able to track our kids’ locations and data. At the same time, they all agree with me that our kids don’t need to watch white power videos, or play FIFA nonstop, or lose touch with the agony of boredom, or really even be able to be located at every moment, or — and this part guts me — think their devices are more important than the people in the room with them. But they too have been sucked in by the hive mentality of the Mind Flayer.

Author Baratunde Thurston said that we are letting our planet’s most unsocial people guide our social lives, our public lives, our inner lives. And worse, at least in the Bay Area, parents who aren’t yet ready for their children to have a computer in their sweatpants are being demonized by other parents for not “allowing their children to have social lives.”

Check out the mixed messages here. In our culture, to be different by choice is a strength we celebrate — who didn’t cheer when Harry Potter rebelled against the Ministry of Magic and actually slain Voldemort? Yet who’s to say I won’t become my son’s Nagini for making him feel like Severus Snape in middle school? To be a tween outcast — even for the most high-minded reasons — feels like the ultimate injustice.

Then what’s a parent to do? If we know we cannot slay these technological dragons, if we know this is their future, and could possibly be the new normal for an indefinite amount of time, how long should I continue to hold up my sword to protect him? Jean Twenge says at least 14, when puberty has kicked in a bit, and they have at least a bit more maturity to slay the depression that comes with mass amounts of screen time. Yet at middle school orientation, after the principal took a selfie with the incoming sixth graders, he asked how many had cell phones, and almost every kid in the auditorium raised their hand. 14 means two more years of my kid not being able to communicate with his peers in the only way they seem to understand or accept as normal.

Some middle ground ideas I’ve heard tossed around by other concerned parents are flip phones, or watches with limited text/phone ability, or using an old smartphone with no data or Internet so he can text his friends but not be able to watch Minnie Mouse give blow jobs. Yet isn’t this the equivalent of buying knock-off Jordan’s?

I try to tell my son that my phone has brought me convenience but no joy. That as I understand parenthood, a mother infuses her children with the skills to make tough choices on their own so they can survive without us, and that having a phone is engaging with a monster that is constructed to be stronger than you. I try to argue that with an underveloped prefrontal cortex, the long-term damage has yet to be fully researched when it comes to digital addiction. I even add my experience as a university lecturer. Explaining that since I started teaching 15 years ago, my students have completely lost the ability to be in a room with each other and socialize. When they arrived in class, their heads bowed to their Apophis-like devices and none of them spoke to each other, or even me, when I greeted them. Last quarter, I asked how they made friends at university and one young woman said she hadn’t made one friend the entire year. She motioned around the classroom, where everyone had their heads angled towards their lighted palms as if we all understood the curse.

In the reality we are all now forced to confront, I am still trying to hold strong. Balancing my kid’s need for connection with his developing brain, he is allowed to text, call or FaceTime his buddies from my cell phone after he completes his schoolwork, his at-home soccer practice and PE, and my enforced no-screen time recess with his brother. All devices, including computers, TV, iPads, and our phones are turned off before dinner and cannot be looked at again until after 9 am the next day. He still isn’t allowed to play video games during the week. And I am trying to implement no screen days on Sundays — something challenging for us all when stuck at home.

Even now though, or maybe especially now that his educational, personal, and physical life have all become digitized, I still see no need to get him his own phone. Yesterday morning, we cuddled up on the couch to FaceTime our friends in Munich; this week we’ve danced to Questlove spinning live on Instagram and toured the British Museum on my computer; tomorrow he’ll get to play FIFA online with his best friend. We’re trying to use this tool to our advantage, allowing us to stay connected, or practice Spanish, or learn to draw.

But we’re also reminding ourselves to turn off. We don’t need our devices to exercise, play Catan, cook, plant seeds, and go outside to look at rainbows. How we parents model our relationship to our devices will help our kids navigate their own technological lives (and mental health issues caused by excessive screen time) in the future.

I cannot stab a stake through the heart of the reality digital natives will have to face when the lights are out. I cannot protect my son from the constant presence of possibility and reward and entertainment and terror forever. All I can do is hold strong for now in my own battle with the real zombie apocalypse. It will beat me one day, but I hope I can buy enough time to offer my son a backpack of tools for slaying the beasts of modern living. When I finally throw down my sword and admit defeat, I just hope that he hasn’t already morphed me into the roaring, snarling, heavy-breathing Wicked Witch threatening the life he thinks he wants. •

Michele Bigley is a two-time Lowell Thomas Award-winning writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, AFAR, Outside, Los Angeles Times and many more. Currently, she is writing a book about taking her sons to meet the people working to protect the planet from, and prepare their communities for, our climate crisis. She teaches writing at UC Santa Cruz.

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