Of Tech and Togetherness

“Among our closest friends and family members, we operate furtively without even trying to, for no reason other than that we are using a nearly omnipresent, highly convenient tool, the specific use of which is almost never apparent.”

—Susan Dominus, “Motherhood, Screened Off”

I am pretty sure I didn’t always love family gatherings, but I started loving them around the time I went off to college. There’s something wonderful about being in a crowded kitchen, everyone preparing a different side dish as we chatter about the minutia that make up our everyday lives.
I am not at all good about keeping in touch with family members other than my own parents, so holidays are one of those rare times when I have a chance to connect with extended family. Growing up, I was close to my sister (we’re just two years apart), but after she got married and started that all-consuming thing known as medical school, we mostly followed our separate paths.
On a vacation to a cabin up north this past summer—which involved my parents, my sister, her husband, and their three-year-old son, plus Mr. NaCl and our two kids—as well as during a Thanksgiving spent with Mr. NaCl’s family in Iowa, it seemed to me that the nature of our interactions was different than it had been in years past. At the end of a long day that involved some combination of cooking, dish washing, and keeping the exuberant children well occupied, the adults were tired. Both families include a good number of introverts, so after the kids were all in bed, evenings offered a chance to recharge. 
I come from a family of readers, so it used to be that we would all gather in a common space and each curl up with a book (or perhaps some knitting, for my mom and me). Conversation would happen in fits and starts; someone would start laughing at something they read and then share it with the rest of us. But now, the evenings are spent with each person absorbed in his or her own electronic device. I couldn’t really put my finger on why that bothered me until I read the essay from which I quoted at the beginning of this piece. That’s it! Our devices obscure what we’re doing from each other even when we’re all in the same room.
Despite all this, there’s something to be said for the brief moment of respite provided by escaping into a screen. Someone might have emailed me in the last ten minutes! Or perhaps someone at this very website said something witty that I really need to see right now! But it’s so easy to slip into something more than a quick check of a website. The minutes pass by and suddenly a child is calling my name and I’m responding, “just one more minute.”

I’m not on Facebook, but every month or so I’ll use Mr. NaCl’s account to check what my sister has posted. What I love about her is that she does not document her life’s highlights. Instead she notes every sickness (her son is a puker), every flat tire, every vet appointment for her aging dog.

Our screens keep us apart, our screens bring us together. I’m not sure I have any answers here, but I feel certain that years from now, what I remember most about the time spent with my extended family will not be those times when we all sat around looking at our devices.

The next time I’m with extended family, there isn’t any reason that I couldn’t propose that the adults all play a game together one evening—the kind of game played on a board or with a deck of cards. The fact that the kids are young right now restricts what our options are, both in terms of their limited attention spans and in terms of their relatively early bedtimes. So I realize we won’t always be in circumstances that require us to be engaging in quiet activities at home starting at 8:00 in the evening.

I don’t think technology is the enemy—some of my closest friends are people I know “from the Internet.” And I don’t think that family interactions must be entirely devoid of tech devices. But I am trying to figure out how we can overcome the lure of our individual screens and really connect with one another on those occasions when we are all together. I’m more than a little curious to hear from others here about how technology has affected your family gatherings and what you make of this brave new world of screens.

56 thoughts on “Of Tech and Togetherness”

  1. It is a tough balance. My MIL got upset about the teen cousins looking at their phones and not talking. My MIL was watching a recorded episode of a soap opera at the time while the rest of us sat in painful silence.

  2. My wife and I are terrible at home, but it's often an escape from the monotony that can be raising a toddler. When the family is around, it never seems to get worse than glances at the device to check something. Everyone would rather play games than read or whatever. Though none of us are teenagers. One of our cousins is a teen, and the one time a year we see him he's pretty much in his phone the entire time. Part of that is that he's insanely bored by the adult conversation. I remember being distracted by my Gameboy when the adults blathered on when I was a kid.

    1. I have trouble telling my daughter to get off her phone so that she can sit in silence while grandma watches her soaps.

  3. some of my closest friends are people I know “from the Internet.”

    That is the ONLY way I know all y'all. Spooky's the only one I've ever talked to in real time, and that was over Skype (or Google+ or whatever)

    1. I've never met any of you.

      'Twas going to meet Stick at Maxwell's before a Twin's game about 11+ years back (pre-new-basement) but it didn't happen. Closest contact to a Citizen has probably been the cribbage tournament.

      I've wanted to join the Caucusii but hard to do when in H'istan. Brief time in Minny is usually with family.

      1. Dido on the family conflicts. I very much enjoyed meeting with a bunch of you about four summers ago (has it been that long?), but would love to make a major caucus some year.

        Otherwise, only close calls (Spooky and family passing through Sactown on their move south; Pepper and Rhu, separately, visiting wine country)....

  4. As someone that got hired in part from all of my teenage screen time, this is something I struggle with plenty. If I'm reading something, screen or not, I automatically tune out anything else. Because of that, after some, uh, discussions, the rule is to pay attention to (i.e. look at) the person speaking.

  5. Between her work, preferred method of entertainment delivery (books, television shows, social media, etc.) and the geographic and professional dispersion of her closest friends, my wife is plugged in a lot. We make it a point to keep the devices off at the dinner table (I do have to remind her once in a while).

    I'm not sure why, but there isn't a real propensity for overuse of personal electronics at large-scale family gatherings.

    1. I wonder about this stuff just as much with regard to daily life with the kids as I do when it comes to large-family gatherings. Since reading the article I quoted at the beginning of the piece, I have been trying more often to narrate what I'm doing, so rather than it appearing that I've been sucked into the void, the kids know that I'm checking the weather or writing to another parent to set up a playdate, etc.

      1. I have been trying more often to narrate what I'm doing

        Yeah, that's a good idea. I think I better start doing that.

  6. This is something I worry about quite a bit without ever doing anything about it. My wife and I are both pretty bad about it, and I worry that we aren't engaging with the little one as much as we can (or should).

    Maybe once Big Brother is over, I'll scale back. (yeah, right)

    1. I think part of the reason it's hard to know what to do about it is that there are articles like this one, which takes a scientific study in which some mother rats have inadequate resources, and instead of drawing a parallel with poverty, there's a suggestion that parents distracted by cell phones are similarly harming their children. What???

      1. I've also read articles that indicate that American parents pay more individual attention to their kids nowadays than any time in history.

        1. I saw a black & white picture of a train full of people reading newspapers. The caption stated (jokingly ) that people interacted much more in the old days.

        2. I think you're right, Beau. This tidbit has really stuck with me since I came across it last year: "[time studies show that] working mothers today, even when they work full time . . . spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s and '70s . . . because they've given up personal leisure time and time with adults."

          The source is a NPR interview with Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte.

          1. Before kids I saw my two lifelong friends about 10 times per year. In the last year, 1 combined.

            1. Lifelong friends...?
              My friends from before first grade (neighbor kids) were not my main friends starting in 1st grade.
              Two of my friends from 1st or 2nd grade continued as close friends through Senior year. (G1-4 were in a small school outside of NU. We were bussed to the country!)
              Before Senior Year of HS, I met EAR (née EAP).
              I hardly kept up regular contact with any HS friends once in college.
              I hardy kept up regular contact with any College friends once in the adult world.
              I've worked for the same boss and with some of the same people since I've joined the adult world, but are they friends?
              I think I found Bat-Girl in 2003, which means I've known SBG, Frightwig, DPWY, and BJHess for around 12 years. (Any others who were semi-regulars from there?)
              What I'm trying to say is that, outside of my wife, some of y'all are as close to lifelong friends as I've had.

  7. I probably have too much "screen time" but being in social situations, even relatively comfortable ones, can trigger my anxiety and phone related rituals tend to help keep that at bay. Most of the company I keep is pretty introverted, so I'm not exactly an outlier in doing that with my group of friends, most of whom I got close to via the interwebs. In super stressful situations, like being around a ton of strangers, I don't think I'd be able to cope without my phone or headphones or something to be away from the crush of sounds/strangers. So, it lessens my direct interactions with people, but it keeps me from being a hermit. Yaye I guess?

  8. One of my hobbies is reading RSS feeds (try explaining that to people...). My NewsBlur account currently tracks 102 feeds. When we're visiting family I try to keep it to a minimum – at breakfast if others are reading the dead-tree newspaper, if someone is watching television, at night after turning in – but I'm not immune from checking Instagram occasionally to see what friends are doing/posting. Because so much of my day revolves around appointments/meetings I don't get much time to look at stuff online during working hours, and I'm an introvert doing an extrovert's job. Add those together and that means when I get home I tend to need some time to check out and just be inside my head. The discipline around technology I have when we're visiting doesn't spill over nearly as much as it probably should at home, unfortunately.

    I'm going to be looking at the arrival soon to come as good time to reset my relationship with this hobby and try to be more realistic about the number of sites I'm following.

    1. The technology debate aside, once there's young kids in the picture, the time to relax inside your own head as an introvert shrinks dramatically. I know that's obvious, so the point I want to make is that I hope you deal with it better than I have.

      Right now, I desperately need more of that time because my workplace situation has changed very significantly over the past six months that the workday ends up being really stressful and often depressing, but I'm not getting it and it's starting to effect my abilities to not stay calm.

      1. I've been debating whether to shell out for a subscription to Headspace, a meditation program. Given your experience with introversion, work, and kids, I'm leaning more strongly toward it as a bulwark against losing my own ability to stay calm. I've managed to be a better person at work here than I was in my previous life, but getting pulled three different ways could erode some of that progress or make the bad workplace stuff spill over the levee into my personal life.

      2. once there's young kids in the picture, the time to relax inside your own head as an introvert shrinks dramatically.

        This. I've taken to staying up too late in order to have some personal unwind time. Everything else is me stealing a minute or two here and there by purposefully taking too long to wash the dishes or some such.

          1. Heh. Real life.
            Also, taking the long way home from the bus stop. Or getting off at a different bus stop. Or leaving work early but getting home at the same time but with burrs on my shoes and pants. (Do not go into the woods wearing corduroy!)

        1. My Friday and Saturday nights typically go to 1-2 am before getting to bed. Its the only time I have alone to play video games or watch movies and stuff.

          1. When I was in grad school I was the type to stay up until 3am, either working or unwinding. Difference was, I didn't have to be to work before 8am. Now I'm lucky to make it to 1am on a non-work night. I'm going to have to work hard to avoid slipping back into the old routine.

            1. I don't play video games, but staying up to read or watch a movie/show is pretty routine. I find that if I'm honest with myself and make myself hang it up when I get tired, I'm in bed at a fairly decent time on non-work nights.
              I also know how much better my interactions with the kids & wife are when I'm in bed by midnight, no matter if I have to get up for work (5:50 a.m.) or get up with the kids b/c Sat or Sun (6:30 a.m.). Stayed up late on Wednesday night and by 6:45 yesterday evening, I was on my last straw with Niblet...going so far as to yell an obscenity and literally hand him to my wife so I could leave the room. Teething, growing pains, dirty diaper & diaper rash and exhausted kiddo + exhausted me = unfortunate explosion.


            2. This was me, exactly, in college and law school. Even when I started working, though that was more 1ish than 3ish. That unwind time is huge.

            3. This was me, exactly, in college and law school. Even when I started working, though that was more 1ish than 3ish. That unwind time is huge. I'll end up going long chunks of time now without really getting it, and then when I do, it's revelatory. "Oh yeah. I've been missing this. Wow."

            4. Before I got married, I got into programming computer games (Pascal, C, assembler) with Disney motif with some guys in the Twin Cities, and selling to Kmart/Target outlets, price points around $8. Same program design different adventures.

              I would program all night, we got paid well, but it was really gratifying.

              Then marriage...

  9. I don't really* have a "device", but I do have printouts of internet articles. I don't read them at the table, and I typically save them for reading time when family is around.
    I used to get in some conflicts over computer usage when I'd visit my in-laws, because introversion and a need to find a quiet place led me to the computer room. Now there's wifi and iPads so I can check out while still sitting in the same room. Plus, my SiL's are more smart-phonery, so it's not like I'm the only one checking out.

    In my house I rarely use the iPad unless EAR is on the computer at the same time or while we're watching TV and need to look up an actor on IMDB. I joke that I should call it the "IMDBPad". It'd definitely saved me from having to get up off the couch and interrupt a movie to find out if that British actor is the same as the one from... what other British show? It's also saved me from the habit of leaving to look that up and then looking at facebook and then Twitter and then the Twins score, and oh! internet person has an interesting bird ID question and I need to reference a few books for that and... [Verner Herzog Voice: "Two Hours Later..."] EAR is asleep on the couch and the movie's over and I'm downloading MP3s of a cassette-only release from Michigan in the 90s.

    *My phone is "smart" but I use it solely as a phone and text-message sender, with occasional photographs. Getting a dumb phone was not possible.
    It really comes to me hating to type into a touchscreen. I'm actually texting less and calling more because typing takes me forever. I miss the tactile buttons of my old slidephone. I miss a lot about it, actually.

    1. It really comes to me hating to type into a touchscreen.

      That is why Swype is the greatest invention for phones ever.

        1. This is the best image I've seen so far about it.

          It used to be a separate app, and they might still exist, but Google added it to Android in Google Keyboard. iOS supports it too now I think.

      1. I thought I would hate Swype when I first tried it, but after using it for a day or two, I can't hardly stand to trying to tap-text anymore.

        1. My wife never uses it for some reason. I think it's because she thinks it makes her make more typos because she never double checks that the word is right. Funny thing is, she makes waaasy more mistakes since she stopped.

  10. This Christmas was the first one where I was a major culprit of the looking-at-a-screen-during-family-time phenomena. It happened at the in-law's Christmas, but not so much with my family's Christmas. I think that says a lot about the conditions that lead to it. My in-laws is not usually a small gathering, but there was a lot of coming-and-going this year, such that we never quite seemed to have "everybody" around at once. Meals were disjointed and bed times and nap times were all over the map. In short, we just weren't "together" like we usually are, and what I found myself doing in that was seeking solace in the screen. In the past, I've been quite annoyed with people who were always on their phones, and not paying attention to the group, or playing games, etc. This year, I leaned into it. I didn't like the result, and will be trying to avoid it next year.

    On my side of the family though... there was very little of it. Heck, we had people sitting around talking about the apps they use with frequency, but very little app-using. My family also arranged a very very large gathering, set for a specific chunk of time, with a few specific activities to be handled. So we were all much more present in the moment, and the screens weren't an issue.

    I find myself more concerned about my usage when the kids are awake than anything else. That thing that was described about one quick check of something becoming a check of several other things and one minute turning to ten, etc... yeah. That is me. So much. I know my wife hates it. Heck, I hate it. I want to be paying more attention to my kids. One of my new years' resolutions was to keep off the ipad until the kids are in bed. I haven't been perfect about it, but when I've been on it when they're awake, it's generally been more purposeful. Most of the time we've been doing something together, or figuring out a family question "will we be able to play in the snow tomorrow?" etc. I've slipped into extra time once or twice, but not like I was doing before. How long I manage to keep that up? Eh... we'll see. It's been a loooong week, and I just want to go home and veg tonight.

    Anyway, I suppose I'm not adding too much new here. Just saying "yes" in a long winded fashion. Thanks for the post Pepper. It hits home.

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