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Ways of seeing: Children can be lost in digital era

Years ago, before I’d even held a flip phone, we were headed on a family hike with friends. One of them quipped as he climbed into our van, “I hope you don’t mind if I bring my cell phone.” This was spoken with some pride; he was an early adopter.
I said (nervously), “We don’t believe in those phones. They are not allowed in our van.”
He said, “In that case, I’ll just turn it off,” which he did, pressing a button and then pocketing the phone.
Never mind nine hours later, hike completed, and the van full of hungry children, the only way to find a restaurant with room in it for eight people, was to use that phone.
“You know,” he said, “they can be useful in an emergency.”
Fast forward twenty-five years to 2018 as cell phone companies devise apps to help users discern what their daily (or hourly) cell phone usage is since talk of addiction to cell phones runs rampant; little handles are sold to prevent muscle spasms in hands from over use of hand-held devices; and talk of radioactivity from phone batteries and brain cancer is on the rise.
Cell phones are called “smart” because, well, they are useful.
Email is referred to as “my memory.” This tiny computer not only wakes you up with specially curated beeps, it tells you where to be and when to be there; it both takes dictation and turns sounds into printed word; it transcribes book lists and shares them after researching titles online; it enables us to look up anything and everything we have forgotten or want to know while mapping routes, counting steps, piping in curated music lists and news along with announcing weather alerts and incoming missiles; it helps soothe a child in the back seat of the car with a game or video.
Think of it: no longer do our children have to be bored and gaze out the window at passing scenery — even in beautiful places — while daydreaming.
Holding this opium of the masses in our hands, altering our brains and way of being — with ourselves and with each other — we are in the process of turning ourselves into a nation of cyborgs, slowly, inexorably.
I hate it while I love it.
And then there’s this:
Six weeks ago, on a long weekend in New York City, where spring was in full flush while Vermont still slumbered in a longer than usual cold spell, we walked ten miles (yes, recorded on our smart phones) of sidewalks and paths through Central Park in one day. The cherry trees were in full bloom, the grass beneath freshly green; daffodils, primulas, tulips and a myriad other bulbs striped next to the paths, in and under the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons; conifers were tipped with bright green; dogwood trees flashed pale cream, magnolias pale pink.
Preening, cooing, strutting, birds were all a twitter, in a craze of hormones in the longer day-length. Birdwatchers in search of warblers gathered in clusters, binoculars skyward, and necks craning. And the Central Park Reservoir was covered with diving ducks and mallards poking through the weeds at the edge.
Every runner had an earpiece and a monitor. Every walker was on a phone, talking and gesticulating.  Folks in their lawn chairs, with books and picnic blankets were online. Photos were being snapped, and folks reaching to take selfies stood under the blossoms. And parents were wheeling children in strollers and prams — you know, the kind where the baby faces the parent. Some of these babies were sleeping. But many of them were awake, looking up at the faces of Mummy or Daddy, making little chirping noises, or blowing bubbles, or trying on a smile, or raising their eyebrows and waving their arms.
At first I thought I was imagining it — then I felt foolish, a provincial luddite from Vermont observing hip, beautiful young urbanites with their fresh tiny progeny — to whom they were not talking, with whom they were not connecting even non-verbally. Could it be? We started counting. It was a beautiful day, so a lot of people were out in the park.
And every parent of a small child in a stroller or pram was on a cell phone.
Every. Single. One.
The main event was in the line outside the Heavenly Rest Café, half a block from the Guggenheim Museum. A father, rocking a stroller back and forth, while talking on his phone, seemed to be unaware that his toddler in the front of the stroller out of his line of vision was having a complete melt down. And so was he — with whomever he was speaking through the slender box in his hand — though not with the same intensity as his little daughter.
His wife must have gone to check on the line into the Café, because as she walked back toward husband and child we saw her startle and take a mental snapshot: child thrashing and screaming, tethered to the stroller by a safety harness, father rocking the stroller back and forth with one hand while looking in another direction, oblivious, absorbed in a conversation elsewhere.
We watched her run up to him, point at the front of the stroller; he blinked and seemed not to take it in; she grabbed his phone out of his hand and threw it into the diaper bag on top of the stroller; outraged, he reached into the diaper bag for his phone; she stomped off, back towards the café while he dialed up to resume his conversation.
We didn’t hear their words. It was a brief film with no soundtrack.
And the child, still screaming and pulling at the safety harness, was unattended — howling in a jungle where there was no real sound.
I can’t shake this image. And I don’t know what to think.
I do know that without eye contact between parent and baby, without the sharing of sounds, babble, then words, and without touch, baby humans shut down.
Or grow up stunted, like plants deprived of water and sunlight. In-person human connection — verbal and non-verbal — is nourishment.
My friends who teach kindergarten say many of their tiny students have no social skills.
And of course this is not only about cell phones….
But what are we doing with our cell phones and our children, and what does it portend for the future?
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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