As is common here in the Bay Area, we reside far from our families. Like many, we say: ‘We keep in better contact now than if we lived in the same country!’ And indeed, it’s true, daily moments shared on Instagram, updated iPhoto albums between assorted family and friend groups, endless WhatsApp chats sharing photos, FaceTime chats, links, videos, emoji. For me it stops there, along with email, this is about the limit of online social contact I can keep up with, especially with a 6-month-old son. My husband manages to keep up with events through Twitter and both of us have dramatically reduced our Facebook usage.
But it’s our baby that is the newest thing in this digital-age family-communication whirlwind. This isn’t a preachy post about what screens might do to children (if you want to read that you can read the trashy shocking one here, and the very well researched one here) – but rather, a rumination on how screen time enters the lives of babies born in the rapidly changing digital age.
The weekly FaceTime sessions with grandparents are when our little boy gets plonked a foot away from a laptop’s glowing screen, carefully angled for the family to get the best view of the little wriggler. He is greeted by squeals of delight, gasps at his advancing size (yes, we have all learned now that things look bigger on laptop cameras) and a few rounds of ‘Pop goes the weasel’ and such. Over the past months, his reactions have changed from the unresponsive and unfocused gaze of a newborn to a delighted smile when the FaceTime grandparent cooing session begins, – as we speculate on whether he recognizes their voices and faces yet.
His very first introduction to screens, consistently since the moment he was born, is that they are a 2-way communication device that allows him to interact with his own far-flung family. What could be the effect of this? When we eventually let him watch TV, will he reason that the characters are communicating directly with him? When he gets a phone of his own, will he be a natural at using video-calling, in a way that none of us have really got to grips with?
While we are amongst the crowd to whom screen technology is something best avoided for young babies and children, I wonder exactly what our fear is founded in? Consider historical advances in technology which faced similarly reactionary fear from older generations: When the new-fangled technology of television was introduced, people proclaimed aghast that it was the end of books and reading. Before that, a century ago, when books first became widely available, parents no doubt shook their heads in dismay – “No one will talk to each other anymore!”. I wonder about Victorian families decorating their walls with the newest decorative craze: Mirrors. Did they whisk their children away from their own reflection, fearing that they would become so entranced by it that they won’t learn to play with toys or other children? I recall a tale in an old book of Victorian children’s stories about a little country girl who got bewitched by her own reflection in a river, so much so that in the end the reflection took her life. A cautionary tale which would not likely be a worry to many people today!
To some extent the fears of parents are driven by their own guilt: It’s easy to imagine chocolate being forbidden to children by the over-indulger who just can’t help themselves with that box of sweet treats, and so, smartphones are clumsily hidden from view by parents fervently checking social media – guiltily addicted ourselves.
How far we have come in this modern world where we glibly let babies toy with their own reflections in mirrors embedded in soft toys and playmats. Bookshelves sit quietly in the corner of our rooms without a worry in the world, places of learning, certainly not overly demanding of our attention. Why then should we worry about the television? The computer screen? The smartphone? Will our children just grow up to be flippantly dismissive about them? Shrug and roll their eyes at our excitement when messages come in, or when a new episode of our favorite series comes out? “How archaic!” “What a waste of time!” As they whip away laughing to wrap themselves around strange new ways in communication and amusement. Leaving us stuck to our sofas, eyeballs on screens.
Do you FaceTime with children? What is your main way of keeping in touch with family ‘back home’?
I know now that I’m not alone, being homesick is just another part of the rich, fascinating and sometimes challenging experience of being an expat.