After a week away from home, I walk in. Not a sound. I take a few tentative steps into the flat. I open the door to the living room. There in total silence, my four children, each with their own devices, slouch on the sofa.
They barely notice me. For a second, a pair of eyes zeroes in on me, only to return to what it was doing just a moment ago: living in a parallel, digital world.
Very little in my blessed time as a father has been so heart-breaking. Indeed, only a few years ago, as I returned home from work, the children used to run down the corridor, arms outstretched, shouting in delight “mummy, daddy is home” as they raced to be the first to jump in my arms.
The noise that greeted me, then, was the sign of life. Something grew, stirred, laughed, talked and sometimes cried and fought in our house.
Now, the silence of the tomb greeted me.
The reaction was swift. I took all devices away and hid them – on occasions I forgot where.
First there was the sound of wailing, akin to the sound a wounded soldier might make as the surgeon amputates a lifeless limb; second came the spite of the “wish I was never born” kind; third was the accusation of hypocrisy.
The latter was not entirely false. Only a minute or so after dispatching all of their devices, they caught me on mine. Worse, I was engaged in an argument with a total stranger on Twitter. When they pointed it out, I meekly told them something about this being part of my work (it wasn’t).
Like the Climate Change activist who drives a large SUV, my rules applied to them, not to me.
My sense of guilt was nearly as heavy to bear as the realisation that the Digital World was on the cusp of stealing the life of my children before my very eyes.
By coincidence I came across “Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation”. The book, now a best seller, was written by Robert “Bob” Wigley, the Chairman of UK Finance, a trade association for the UK banking and financial services sector. He was on the board of the Bank of England during the 2008 Financial Crisis among other things. “Society is distracted”, he writes.
“Our attention has been hijacked by the tsunami of smart devices and tech companies”, he says, adding “as a father of three teenage sons, I observed my children’s relationships with their smart-phones, gaming consoles, and laptops and began to wonder what the implications were for their brains, personalities, and lives”.
The book, itself, meanders elegantly into the new paradigm’s harmful effects and benefits. It also dives into the motivations of industry participants and gives us a glimpse of a new and fast developing workplace reality for the generation that was born with smart phones in its hands.
A crucial observation came from a GlobalWebIndex survey. Generation Z, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s spends over seven hours a day online, spilt roughly between smart-phones and laptops – more time than they spend with family, friends or even sleeping.
Further, the book covers the rise in self-harm, loneliness, cyber-bullying as well as some of the remedies.
There are efforts afoot to pass legislation that would require social media users to prove who they are. There are discussions on where the liability for cyber harm falls.
For instance, could the Social Media manager rather than the company itself be held personally liable for the harm done to children on their platforms?
However, as with many things, waiting for the government and various bureaucratic organisations to act in the right way with the alacrity required, whilst your child turns into a young adult, seems a suboptimal solution to say the least.
The most important aspect of the book is that it clarifies and aggregates the issues that emanate from this relatively new Digital paradigm. At the core, though, it is a wake-up call.
As such, it is difficult to overstate how important Robert Wigley’s book has been for both my family and me. It has simply saved our lives.
As state above, Generation Z spends over seven hours on devices. When I read that it seems self-evident. However, what about me?
I checked my own phone. Staggeringly, my average was over six hours per day. If I added that with the time spent on my laptop and on devices other than my phones, it would have probably been a good 14 hours in total.
My usage, and with it my state of distractedness, was probably greater than that of my children, by a country mile.
The technology, as Bob says, has some very positive aspects to it and, with the best will in the world, cannot be either ignored or un-invented.
However, the book gave me the tools to understand that I needed to act within the universe I could control and establishing patterns that would be palatable to my wife and four children.
As a result, we set rules.
There would be “exclusion zones” in which no devices were permitted: no smart-phone, laptop, or tablet would be allowed in any bedrooms, parental included, at any time.
No devices could be used or played with at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table.
For all evening meals, we would sit-down and wait for all the members of the family to be seated before starting and get up when all were done.
In addition, access to games would be restricted to one hour in the evenings subject to homework, music and sports being done.
For me, specifically, there would be no mobile phone usage at the weekend at all. I promised myself to make no exceptions.
We have implemented these rules and largely stuck by them over the last year.
My weekly average fell from over 6 hours to around 30 minutes a day.
The upshot is a staggering injection of extra life. I have rediscovered the joy of reading, writing, speaking in full sentences to my close ones.
Interestingly, the less I used the devices, the less I cared about them. The deep emotional claims Big Tech made hitherto on my life vanished. Spending time on Social Media became an alien concept.
In short, like so much in life, it is accepting personal responsibility, eschewing its delegation to third parties such as parliaments, governments or lobby groups that will free you and your family from their grip.
The solution to Big Tech’s growing influence is consciously, as Gwyneth Paltrow would say, decoupling yourself from its platforms.
In so doing, Facebook, Apple, Twitter and more would turn into utilities as exciting as gas pipeline businesses.
By setting boundaries on your usage of such platforms, you are increasing the value of your time. There is so much to gain from living life in the real world and very little from feeding Big Tech’s insatiable appetite for your time on this planet.
Implementing small changes and sticking to them on this front will save yourself and your loved ones a great deal of life. Small changes, huge upside: That’s got to be the deal of the century.