“The Winter of Our Disconnect”July 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
As the stepmother of a sixteen-year-old, I found The Winter of Our Disconnect to be a highly relevant, absolutely gripping, and sometimes hilarious read. Susan Maushart sleeps with her iPhone and her three teenagers appear to have been born into this world wrapped in cords and cables. She decides all four of them should go screen-free for six months and observe what happens. The book goes beyond stunt journalism and explores some fascinating philosophical questions raised by our modern technology addiction.
“Screens” include the phones, the laptops, the televisions, and the hand-held gaming apparatus. Naturally, a great deal of haggling goes on, and the result is that the house and car are screen-free, but anywhere else is fair game. Also, the kids receive cash bribes for their participation. In the interest of full disclosure, our teen operates under a formal Electronics Use Policy at our house, but not her mom’s. Rather than pay her to follow it, she has to buy time to use her pet devices by doing chores and extra academic work. We don’t allow electronic games whatsoever and we had to cancel cable – both draconian policies put in place after years of unfavorable academic and attitudinal results.
Maushart explores the idea that boredom is actually constructive, both for kids and adults. She has some pretty compelling things to say about unlimited screen time, family meals, sleep, and kids’ behavior. Her strongest message is that untrammeled electronics use tends to drive a wedge between family members. The entire family, and an extended circle of the kids’ friends, draws closer and has a great deal of fun over the course of the project, playing board games and – believe it or not – singing around the piano.
We don’t have a piano at our house, but otherwise I would say our experience meshes well with Maushart’s. Our kid under the influence of GameBoy had a nasty temper and was nearly impossible to deal with. It took nearly a year to exorcise the beast fully from our house because she would wait a month or so, then sneak it back in. Then she would bring in other handheld games to take its place and we would have to argue it out again. “Yes, solitaire on the iPhone counts. You are free to play solitaire with actual playing cards.” The introduction of an expanded cable package resulted in a substantial drop in grades, which went back up when the cable went away again.
Next was the laptop. Obviously we buy our kids a computer “for homework.” Equally obviously, they use it for gaming, social media, web surfing, fan fiction, illegally downloading stuff, turning off the anti-virus software, and all sorts of naive teenage behaviors. (We don’t want them doing that stuff on our desktop, now do we?) We started having issues with late nights, non-completion of homework, and non-compliance on chores. Hence the Electronics Use Policy.
The rules at our house: Complete a certain set list of chores, including walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher, and learning SAT vocab, before touching the laptop. It cannot be kept in the bedroom overnight and needs to be unplugged by 10:00 at the latest. No laptop during “family time” as arbitrarily stipulated. Extra time can be earned via a long, varied list of activities with different ratios biased in favor of running, doing research papers, and getting a paying job. In practice, she walks 30 miles a week to get her daily free hour online at the public library! The key component of our policy is that laptop use is a privilege, and she needs to ask politely to use it.
Believe it or not, it works like a dream. In fact, most days she doesn’t use it at all. She seems to have thrown herself body and soul into studying for the SATs. By the time I get up in the morning, she is already showered, dressed, and well into her chores list for the day. Even the “politeness” part works. We don’t have to micromanage her any more – I put in a little clause about “independent work habits” that seems to have flipped some kind of switch in her mind. The change has been so dramatic it’s absolutely stunning.
Most businesses have Electronics Use Policies. I’ve known a colleague to lose his job over repeated violations of this type of policy, and I’ve also had a college friend lose both his and his roommate’s internet access for illegal downloading. It is sensible to prepare a teenager for reality in this way. I don’t see any benefits to letting a kid run the house, or an inanimate object dominate the family’s schedule. What it comes down to is that if it causes disharmony in the home, it needs to be reined in. The alternative to a fully wired kid is one who is physically active, helpful around the house, studious, literate, socially adjusted, polite, and appreciative.