Be a role model, not a scroll model

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
― James Baldwin, American author

Recently, an old friend posted something on Facebook that triggered a flurry of comments and criticism. The photo showed four dads sitting off to the side of the room as their respective kids participated in an evening activity at the YMCA. Their faces were whited out, and this friend asked in his post, “Yikes, is this what parenting looks like now?” All four dads had their heads down in their phones. A swift wave of criticism ensued – “Passing judgment on people when we have no idea what their lives are like seems just as ridiculous, if not more so” or “Try not to judge. It’s a moment in time they are stealing for themselves. Parenting is 24/7 365 days a year for all your days. I’m sure they love their children to the moon and back and give them everything they can. It’s just a moment.”

Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is becoming anything but a moment. You can’t go into a restaurant without seeing family members, friends or even couples, on their phones. At work, walking down the street, in bathrooms, in grocery lines, at concerts – heads are buried in phones. I’ve been to four conferences over the past eight months that all revolved around getting kids outside. At all four, there were prominent speakers (including Richard Louv and Catherine McKenna) giving thoughtful keynote addresses. During each address, dozens of attendees had their heads down in their phones. It’s difficult to find public spaces that aren’t filled with people staring down into their phones, let alone in our own homes, which seem to be sanctuaries for constant screen time. And to be clear, this is not a parenting issue – my friend’s post would be more apt to read, “Yikes, is this what being a human looks like now?”

We have unequivocal evidence that too much time with our devices has become not only a barrier to the amount of time we spend outside, but also a barrier to our creativity, our conversations, and to the very way we interact with one another. It’s not only affecting our physical health, but our mental, emotional and spiritual health as well. For those of us who care about the healthy development of our kids (that’s all of us, right?), and in particular, those of us whose work is dedicated to getting kids outside, active, and connected to nature (shouldn’t that also be all of us?), it is our responsibility to be the best possible role models we can be. Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, sums it up well – “You teach who you are.” Yes, we live in a digital age, but the essence of who we are should not revolve around our phones. We need to take every opportunity we have to model this to younger generations. But we can’t truly succeed unless we address the issue of how much time we’re spending on devices ourselves.

This is not a conversation pitting technology against time outside. There is a time and a place for emails, Netflix, texting, catching up on social media – the list goes on. But the imbalance that exists weighs heavily. Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author who has written such bestsellers as Blink, Outliers and many more, calls this issue “one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times.” And in Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible, he gives a stark view of what our future with phones looks like. Recently, a study with over 200,000 participants around the world examined our relationship to smartphones. By the end of the study, 41% of those participants had what would be deemed a behavioural addiction to their phone. In 2015, over 250 million people around the world were said to have a behavioural addiction to their phones. If you think you’re exempt, download the app Moment to track how much time you spend on your phone. The average user is on their device three to four hours daily. Over the course of an adult life, this equates to 11 years worth of time staring at a phone. And with that daily time on our phones, we’re told that the vast majority of it is spent on social media. Research again shows the downside – scrolling endlessly through Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook is resulting in increased rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, sleep deprivation and suicide risk.

Kids growing up today will learn more about technology than we adults ever will. But who is taking the responsibility to make sure kids learn that there is value and joy and meaning in a life lived outside of our devices? Who is their role model for what life looks like without a phone in their hands? In today’s age, it’s a tough task to even suggest this, as not having our phone within reach is almost unimaginable. But a true role model often entails going above and beyond what might be expected. This is precisely what is required – we need to make a more concerted effort to keep our phones in our pockets, especially around kids. Heck, even when we’re not around kids. If they’re going to imitate us, let’s be a good role model, not a scroll model.




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