Sometimes just being with my three-year-old daughter feels so overwhelming and painful that I avoid spending time with her. While I love her with all my being, there are times when it hurts so much that I disappear into my work, study or one of my devices. It’s like I am scared of my love for her. It feels like there is a battle between two opposing forces. On one side is the worry: an overwhelming feeling of responsibility, duty and unease. On the other is wonder: a call to love, nurture and care.
Sometimes I would numb these feelings by doom-scrolling the day’s news, or searching for clothes, shoes and overpriced gourmet food that I don’t need or particularly want.
Once I got sick of filling shopping carts on my iPhone, I would play soccer manager games on my iPad. It was a full-time job of avoidance. Sometimes I had the trifecta of screens that would include also watching regular TV while being on my other devices. It led to bloodshot rectangular eyes.
I knew my screen time had become problematic, and even though my phone told me I was spending four hours a day scrolling like a device junkie, I ignored the weekly alert. My phone knew I was in a vice but unfortunately, I no longer cared. That is, until I came across a talk by seven-year-old Molly Wright.
I usually baulk at TED Talks, but when I viewed this video as part of my Masters of Teaching studies, my heart sank. The video, which has over three million views, shows the research-backed ways that parents and caregivers can support children’s healthy brain development. It featured an experiment of a father and son playing games like peekaboo together. After a while, the father took out his iPad and began ignoring his child. You could see his son became visibly upset. As the child reached out for comfort, the father ignored the cries and stayed on his device. In that moment, I saw myself engaging in the same behaviour and I felt such guilt and shame. I finally saw I was caught in a vice.
This video was like someone shaking me and yelling:
Hey hipster dad! Yes, you, the one with the beard and flat cap that is covering your bald spot. Yes, I’m talking to you. You’re not fooling anyone.
Do you know it’s important to talk and play with your child?
Do you know that talking and playing with your daughter builds and strengthens your relationship, her mental health and down the track, it will teach them how to make friends, take tests at school, get a job, and start a family of their own?
Get off your phone, stop watching trash TV! Also, you don’t need any more shoes.
In the past, to justify my behaviour, I used the COVID outbreak and subsequent lockdowns as a reason for my screen addiction. I even convinced myself that it was actually healthy and a good thing I was on a screen because I wasn’t stressing out about the rising COVID infection numbers.
Seeing that video of the child reaching for their dad was the circuit breaker I needed. I did not want to hurt my child’s development, so now I am trying to limit my screen time to a more respectable two hours a day.
I am trying to be more present. Instead of screen time, I talk to my daughter and read to her and respond to her questions. You may think it’s just a bit of fun to play with your child, but those games are important for kids because it builds memory and trust. So my wife and I now make a point to sit around the dinner table with the TV off and only get on our devices after our daughter has gone to bed.
Instead of screen time, I talk to my daughter and read to her and respond to her questions
As part of my studies, I’ve also been learning about the importance of oral language and how important it is to a child’s learning development. Oral language is the system that is used for spoken words to communicate ideas, knowledge and emotions. It has a strong relationship to reading and writing. (If you are a parent I recommend this podcast with speech pathologist Jane Beale.)
“You can’t read something or understand it if you can’t say it,” says Beale. “You can’t write if you can’t think it, or hear it in your head. Oral language is the first step and reading, writing and spelling are what comes after.”
This reinforced my commitment to get off my devices and spend more time hanging out with my daughter and engaging with her inquisitive three-year-old mind.
The statistics behind Beale’s podcast were sobering. If you read to your child for less than one minute a day, in a year that equates to 8,000 words. But if you read to her for 20 minutes a day, that is a whopping 1.8 million words a year. Imagine your kid at dinner parties being able to say four or five-syllable words. (“Two martinis, shaken not stirred for Mum and Dad, please.”)
I’d hate to think because I was spending hours looking for organic cotton stripey T-shirts, my daughter would have to miss out on incidental conversation. Research has found there are a growing number of children from middle-class and upper socio-economic backgrounds who are now showing oral language delays.
These days, I am so glad I’m not (as much of) a screen junkie. I use my newfound time to be a regular dad. I used to think living up to my full potential was eating fewer snacks. But now it’s getting off that goddamn phone to expand my daughter’s world of words through books and play. And, on days when we feel particularly smart, making a rocket ship out of the packaging from my impulse buys.