(Published on Beijing Parents + Kids June/July 2017. All rights belong to City Weekend)
Morning after morning, as I blearily regain consciousness my right arm independently reaches for the nightstand where my phone has been charging. My face is lit not by the warm touch of sunshine but the artifcial blue glare of WeChat and Facebook as I scroll through my messages and newsfeed.
Social media is especially important to me as an expat mom, giving me the chance to share my life in Beijing and proudly document the confidence with which my children have taken to this foreign land. However, as a self-confessed Facebook addict, the perils and positives of smartphone use and etiquette have floated at the periphery of my mind for years.
During the day (and night) my smartphone is very rarely out of reach. If I forget my phone at home I feel anxious. I’m convinced someone is trying to get hold of me or that something has happened with my kids at school. I return to get it — to find silence. Only the number of red dots from WeChat notifcations have increased drastically during the 15 minutes my phone and I were separated.
I decide to switch off for a week; to discover what effect a smartphone-free life would have on my family and myself. The rules are simple — I can only use my phone to make and receive calls, all
other functions (and 4G) are out of bounds.
While much of the handwringing over excessive smartphone use focuses on the amount of screen
time our kids are getting, we, as parents, need to consider the effect our own digital lives have on
our children. Studies show that when we stare at our phones in front of the kids, we make them feel
unimportant. A little girl interviewed for Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect said “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring to my dad because he will take any call, any text, any time. Even on the ski lift.” We’ve all experienced that stab of insecurity when a friend surreptitiously glances at their phone during what you thought was an amusing anecdote — imagine that gnawing feeling of inadequacy stemming not from your friends but your parents, your family.
We moved to China with the noble intention of strengthening our family ties and spending more time together. It worked out well during the first few weeks in Beijing when we supported each other through the challenges of relocation. But as the time flew by, we settled in, our lives got busy and the card games, daily episodes of The Office and Chinese character quizzes were replaced by evenings spent in our own rooms, wrapped up in our individual digital lives. A device-free dinner is the only rule we’ve (sort of) managed to implement.
Although I like to think of myself as a conscientious smartphone user, switching off fully for a week allows me to give my undivided attention to my family. On the fourth day my daughter and I make candles together while we chat and listen to music. I can tell she enjoys the activity and attention, and without the distracting bleeps of WeChat or interruptive compulsion to take photographs, I also feel at peace.
On the morning of my seventh and last day of smartphone detox, I am on my way to interview
Dr. Nicole Bush at Oasis International Hospital. I get completely lost. With sweaty palms, already 15 minutes late and having called twice to ask for directions, I start to realise that I might have to give in and switch on 4G so I can receive a location pin by WeChat. But by a small miracle, I notice the hospital further down the road. It is a close call.
Dr. Nicole Bush has 13 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist and a chat with her reveals that children’s excessive use of electronic devices can affect not only their emotional balance but also their social interaction with others. Children tend to isolate themselves when on their devices and in small children, excessive exposure to devices can also increase the frequency of melt-downs and tantrums. The quality of sleep is often compromised when children get too much screen time and from a physical point of view, looking down at a device several hours a day can have a long-term effect on your child’s posture. As a common-sense tip for parents, Dr. Bush suggests that we treat any device in the same way as the treat cupboard in the kitchen. If you wouldn’t give your kids access to that cupboard at any time of the day for as long as they want, then don’t give them free access to electronic devices.
A phone free future?
While I did not get my family on board for a smartphone detox, they supported me throughout the week — even when I failed to transfer pocket money or had to deny access to my Taobao app. Through my experience — especially my almost-missed meeting with Dr. Bush — and discussions with friends and family, I have come to the conclusion that living without a smartphone, particularly in China, as a parent and someone who depends on social outlets, is simply not realistic. But a detox is still something I would recommend to anyone. I have accomplished much more in this week, from the flow of my writing to getting all my Chinese homework done. Best of all, my family had my undivided attention and it was liberating to enjoy quality moments with them without the distraction of my phone buzzing. It turns out I might not be suffering from nomophobia (no-mobile-pho-
bia) after all.
Lise Floris henwestare at our phones, we make our kidsfeel unimportant