Screen presence?

mobile phone walkingWe live very near a primary school and witness the twice daily rush of parents and children arriving and leaving. I remember this daily routine. It was frequently a point of stress, getting two children out on time and navigating our way on foot with the requisite supplies for the day was always a challenge; lunches, PE kit, homework bag, money for non-uniform day, forms for the next trip etc. etc. I don’t miss the pressure of that every day.

On the other hand I do miss the fact that the school run afforded me a good hour of time with my children that was uninterrupted. The mile(ish) walk to school every day was an obligatory opportunity just to be with my kids, attending to their agenda, listening to their stories, embarking with them on their imaginative adventures, playing their games. I’m not perfect. There were times when I was in a hurry and the school run felt like a chore. Times when I got crabby at the endless need to dawdle for some other reason of unnecessary wonder. But there were also times when wandering home from school, taking our time, stopping at all the irrelevancies that children discover, was a treat and a privilege.

No doubt the school run for today’s parents is still a mixture of hurry and joy. But another key ingredient has now entered the fray – the smart phone. Its addictive qualities in this arena seem to me to be just one way in which smart phones are threatening out relationship in a very fundamental way. I watch as parents pick up children and walk the pavement away from school with one hand in the hand of a small child and the other hand holding a screen in from of their face. One parent parks her car early before the school gates open and spends 15 minutes scrolling on her phone whilst her kids play up on the back seat – every day. Parents take their children from the school and walk to the park a short way down the road and, whilst their children play, remain firmly attentive to their phones.

Now the thing is, I get this, I fight the addictive qualities of my own smart phone all the time. I think I’m winning – my wife doesn’t! And I think that the smartphone and early parenthood are a powerful coincidence of distraction and boredom. Because, let’s face it, parenting kids at that age can be mindless and boring. We get to the end of a day of endless demands, chores and childish monologues desperate for an adult conversation. I am pretty sure that the allure of social media and the convenient way in which the smart phone gives us something to occupy us whilst we carry out life’s mundane chores would have been as much as attraction to me as it is to those parents I observe around me.

Besides, our house, replete with Wi-Fi and a smartphone for each of us is now a similar context in which the boundaries of time and space which make for real connection are constantly challenged. It feels like a constant battle with my two teenagers. But if I’m honest, it is a battle for all of us, to dissect the connecting life-giving opportunities that access to social media afford from the isolating, disconnecting effect of always being lured, virtually, somewhere else.

The marvel of social media is that we can be more present to people on the other side of the world, moment by moment, than ever before. The real challenge of the smartphone and social media is the threat that it is to our ability and willingness to be present to those around us. But the thing is that real presence, real connection with another person cannot truly be made possible through social media. No doubt such connections can point to real presence, be perhaps an introduction or a foreshadowing of real presence, but they cannot be a substitute for the real thing.

However there is no doubt that we are making the connections of social media a substitute for the life-enhancing parent child contactconnection of real presence. The constant white noise of social interaction via our smartphones, some of it significant, the vast majority of it banal, is like fast-food compared to a good meal, elevator music to a Brahms symphony, pornography to true sexual intimacy. It gives the lie to real connection, promises much but under-delivers and lures us into binge consumption of its ersatz fakeness. And why do we do it? Because it costs us very little. True intimacy costs us something of ourselves. Real connection happens when we are willing to be vulnerable and give something of ourselves to the other. True presence occurs, not just when I am in the same space (real of virtual) with someone else, but when I give (sacrificially) my full attention to the other.

Which brings me back to the school run. Like I said, I wasn’t always great at real presence in that daily walk to and from school. Vulnerability and real presence never comes easy, it takes practise and dedication. But when I managed it, it was precious, it was wonderful. And, I believe, it was formational. Truly formational. If children in their early years get the sacrificial presence of their parents they find the world a place in which to thrive – someone else is there for them no matter what, to listen and to care and to make sense of their bewildering and sometimes frightening environment. This is nurturing soil and children can’t thrive without it. Consistently being somewhere else via a smartphone fails to create that crucial context. Not only that, it can have the opposite effect of alienating those who we are with. We all know what it feels like to be with someone who is distracted by a text or a Facebook notification – it has that unerring ability to make us feel we are less worthy, less important than (say) the old school acquaintance who wasn’t much of friend at school anyway. Adult to adult this is annoying and divisive. Parent to child it can be really destructive.

Managing mobile phones and social media is a daily challenge. I sometimes want to throw my lot in with Amish and throw the darn thing off a cliff. But I know I won’t. In fact more challenging and more real is the daily challenge to choose vulnerability and presence with those around me who I love the most. That means making consistent choices to offer my attention to them. And that means putting in some clear boundaries around the use of that wonderful, powerful and irritating slab of black technology which is my phone. In terms of connection and presence to those at a key formational time of life though, I wonder whether that all too brief few years when we make the daily journey to and from school in the company of our children, might not be a mobile free zone.