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A few years ago, I was attending my daughter’s ballet recital, a bouquet under my seat; and like most parents of elementary school kids, when it was her turn on stage, I took out my phone to video the performance. Instead of watching my daughter dance, I watched my phone screen, ensuring every graceful turn was in frame. I couldn’t see the impact of the group choreography, and I missed the emotional arc of the dance. After the performance, when my daughter, clutching her flowers, expectantly asked what my favorite part had been, I could hardly remember. My whole experience had been filtered through the screen. I had preserved the performance at the expense of experiencing it. 

Since then, I have stopped trying to capture my children’s athletic and academic achievements with my phone. Instead, I attempt to be present and experience the culmination of their months-long efforts with my own eyes and full attention. As many of us have discovered in the past few years, phones and how we use them have kept us from experiencing life. Of course, there have long been cameras, video recorders, and even Super-8 film. Those devices played a similar role for parents making home movies; however, they were not as ubiquitous as phones are today, nor did email notifications pop up in their viewfinders.

I feel fortunate to have grown up before everyone had cell phones, before the internet was so easily accessible, before apps and social media were in everyone’s pocket, and before I could stave off boredom by flicking through the latest news or playing Wordle. I am glad my mistakes in middle and high school were not preserved for posterity. Perhaps most importantly, I am glad I had the chance to gain perspective and have the experience of living life without constantly filtering my existence through a screen. Our kids are not so lucky. 

Now, I am no Luddite. Smartphones are a marvel. They preserve social connections, keep us civically engaged, enable our safety when traveling, and help us to solve problems quickly by giving access to the largest repository of information ever assembled. My concern is that we have not evolved enough to successfully balance the devices’ usefulness with our psychological limitations as human beings.

Since that dance performance, I have attempted to limit the use of my phone when my kids are around. Yet, even with this effort, I have not always found success. I was recently reminiscing with my younger daughter about our drive from California to Colorado, and I expressed a fondness for one of our adventures in a rock climbing gym in Salt Lake City. She replied, “It wasn’t that great, Dad. You spent the whole time on your phone.” I was crushed. Yes, I had taken a few photos, and yes, I had taken a call from my wife, but I had thought I had done a good job balancing the usefulness of the device with the in-person experience with my daughter. Clearly, I hadn’t. 

In the Colorado Academy Middle School, we require students to turn their phones off and stow them in their lockers or backpacks during the school day. As expected, our kids sometimes “forget” these rules, and I end up with a few phones on my desk each week. These rules are meant to keep kids focused on learning and prevent distraction from Snapchat streaks and Clash of Clans updates. As Sixth Grade families heard at their grade-level coffee last week, nearly all of our Eighth Graders have phones, and our Sixth and Seventh Graders are trending in that direction. Alongside the Parent Association, Dr. Davis recently unveiled our voluntary “Wait until 8” pledge for families at the start of the new year. 

For many Middle School families, however, it can feel like that ship has sailed. Their kids already have phones, and even if they have done all the right things with family contracts and limiting access to social media, the introduction of the phone has changed how the family interacts. When we as parents attempt to rein in the use of phones, we are often met by some version of the classic line from after-school TV specials: “I learned that from you!”

In a week and a half, students will have a five-day weekend for Presidents Day, and many families will take the opportunity to travel together or at least go on a few day outings. I encourage you to engage in those experiences with your children, to continuously choose to keep the phone away except for a few key photos, and to ask yourself beforehand how much you want your experience to be filtered by a device. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we as parents become more aware of how we are engaging in the moment, our kids will follow suit.