DOES YOUR SMART­PHONE MAKE YOU A DUMB DAD?

Stop your dis­tracted dadding.

Men's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - / BY GARY SHTEYN­GART

I hate clichés more than any­thing, but my kid is the best thing that has ever hap­pened to me. He has has soft­ened my ap­proach to the world (even as the world falls apart around us); he has rekin­dled my in­ter­est in the ways and means of the uni­verse; and he has al­lowed me, for the first time in my life, to live out­side the busy mon­key brain that thumps away in­side my skull, at least when­ever he cra­dles his downy head against my chest. He’s four, but he loves hex­adec­i­mals (what­ever those are), tec­tonic plates, and the early work of Marvin Ham­lisch. In some ways, I want to be­come more like him. I’m catch­ing up on my Na­tional Geo­graphic and my Wikipedia just so I can have a con­ver­sa­tion on his level, and he’s help­ing me un­der­stand the ori­gins of thun­der­storms and the frac­tal won­ders of the Fi­bonacci se­ries. When I’m not around, he sets up his stuffed an­i­mals in a cir­cle, takes out his white­board, and says, “An­i­mals, let’s do some maths prob­lems.” But I am his daddy, and that means that he in­evitably wants to be like me. And what does Daddy do?

Pro­fes­sion­ally, I’m a book writer, but more hon­estly, I’m an iPhone user who on oc­ca­sion, to pay the mort­gage, will pop out a novel or two. The phone has taken over and partly de­stroyed my life. I’m on every level of so­cial me­dia, pound­ing out in­vec­tive and pub­li­cis­ing my books. As a dystopian writer, I’m keep­ing up with the news on a 30-sec­ond ba­sis, ad­dicted to the de­spair around me. As a watch col­lec­tor, my sad mid­dle-aged hobby, I’m con­stantly surf­ing watch sites (yes, that’s a thing) and fig­ur­ing out new pieces to stalk for my col­lec­tion. Tex­ting? Of course. The usual texts to keep up with my spouse and friends and plumber, and the con­stant stream of work texts to agents, ed­i­tors, and im­pa­tient de­liv­ery driv­ers.

J. has picked up on the fact that Daddy lives on the phone, and he’s started swip­ing my phone and my wife’s; and be­cause he was born post2010, he uses it as nat­u­rally as I used an aba­cus when I was grow­ing up in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. I’m not wor­ried about him find­ing the wrong con­tent, at least not yet. He’s mostly into videos on prime num­bers and the aurora aus­tralis. But he is fig­ur­ing out that the fu­ture of his world will be lived as much in the dig­i­tal realm as in the real one. Which is to say, my four-year-old has dis­cov­ered tex­ting.

“GOOD NEWS,” he writes to his beloved babysit­ter. “THE THUN­DER­STORM STOPPED NINE HOURS AND 20 MIN­UTES AGO.” “CAN YOU GO TO WAGAMAMA WITH ME?”

“I HAVE 995 DOL­LARS AND 30 CENTS.”

“AB­SO­LUTELY,” his babysit­ter texts back. “THAT’S A LOT OF MONEY, J.” “THANKS,” he texts her back. “4:30.”

I’m glad that my four-year-old is wor­ried enough about his babysit­ter to make sure she stays out of the rain. I’m also glad he can in­vite her to an early noo­dle din­ner (4:30) and com­mu­ni­cate that he has enough cash on hand for when the bill comes. (I hon­estly don’t know how he got that much money. Has he been in­vest­ing on the side?)

But is this right for a four-yearold? Am I deny­ing him the op­por­tu­nity to be a child? Should I be tak­ing away his phone? More to the point, am I a bad role model?

Chil­dren were al­ways in a hurry to grow up, but life was never this fast-paced and data-driven. When I was my son’s age, my fa­ther told me that there was a tree that grew baguettes. This idea ob­sessed me for prob­a­bly a good full year. He and I once passed a tree that looked like it had a bi­cy­cle tyre stuck be­tween its branches, and my fa­ther looked at me as if to say, “See? All kinds of stuff grows on trees.” It was then that I be­came a true be­liever.

These days, my son would just type “Do baguettes grow on trees?” into my phone and three sec­onds later tell me, “Daddy, that is not cor­rect,” in the same tone that he adopts with his stuffed an­i­mals when they get a prob­lem wrong in “maths class”.

I un­der­stand that hu­man be­ings evolve, and that the bar­ri­ers be­tween hu­mans and tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to col­lapse. But I don’t want my son to go to the other side just yet, no mat­ter how so­phis­ti­cated it may seem.

Per­haps it is time to tell my son the truth. Daddy looks at his phone so much not be­cause it makes him happy but be­cause every swipe and tap of his screen de­liv­ers a tiny burst of dopamine that makes him swipe and tap even more in an end­less cy­cle de­signed to de­liver ad rev­enue to a few large cor­po­ra­tions in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In­stead of re­liev­ing his fear and anx­i­ety, the phone adds to it.

Maybe J. would un­der­stand all this. He knows when Daddy is scared. When con­fronted with the 135m-tall Lon­don Eye (I am both a claus­tro­phobe and an acro­phobe), he told me, “Don’t worry, Daddy; I’ll hold your hand.”

Par­ent­hood in these trou­bled times is not for the faint­hearted, and some­times I for­get that my son needs me more than I need him. It’s time to let go of the anx­i­ety and dopamine crav­ing and shut my phone down. The real world is wait­ing for us, and so is the world of the imag­i­na­tion, which is the best world of all. I know of a baguette tree in the park that’s ripe for the pick­ing.

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