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The Human Connection of Screens

“I have 422 friends, yet I’m lonely.”

This is the opening line from a video I clicked on yesterday while scrolling through Facebook to avoid writing.

I had no intention of watching all four minutes and 59 seconds, but I so identified with the possibility of missed moments because my head is always in a smartphone (the point of writer, performer and director Gary Turk’s short), that I got sucked in.

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The video reminded me of the forever-etched-in-my-mind opening sequence to the movie “Up.” You remember, the one voiced by Ed Asner about the curmudgeonly old man who ties balloons to his house and sails away with an eager boy scout to avoid having his home demolished along with the memories of his beloved wife. I cannot get through the first 10 minutes of this movie, as they flash through a lifetime of joys and sorrows without a word spoken, without choking up.

Turk uses a similar device of flashing forward through the life of a couple to hammer home his point that if we don’t get our faces out of screens we may miss the most important moments of our lives, i.e. meeting the love of our life.

Turk’s message stayed with me. When I picked my son up from camp an hour later, I made him leave his device on the seat of the car. He could check his “dragons” later, whatever the hell that means. We talked. I learned that although the peanut butter and Nutella sandwich was “good conceptually,” he didn’t like the bread.

At dinner that night, I chastised my husband for checking his status updates at the table.

“You’re teaching the boys that it’s okay to pull out their phones at the table. What about talking and listening?”

My husband took a beat and looked up.

“Huh?” He laughed. “What? I’m checking to see how many people like me.” He was joking, of course. Or was he? None of us wants to admit it, but the study claiming we get a dopamine high from people “liking” us rings true to me.

Turk’s message is simple: Look up. Risk loving instead of settling for being “liked.” I involuntarily nodded my head during that line.

It might be funny to joke about tracking “likes,” but it feels a little sad to be living it. Not cancer sad, more like weighing yourself hourly sad.

I won’t speak for my husband, or anyone else, but when did I become such an obvious pawn in someone else’s vision? And how did Zuckerberg know he could do this? This is what I find daunting, that some punk genius Harvard dropout had an instinct about people that would change the fabric of American culture.

But back to our collective rebellion. Turk’s message is simple: Look up. Risk loving instead of settling for being “liked.” I involuntarily nodded my head during that line.

“Can we please not have screens at the dinner table,” I asked my husband sincerely.

“Yes,” he said, “I mean, unless I’ve written something really funny.” I frowned.

“I’m kidding, geez.”

“Okay, good, thanks,” I said. I don’t know about you, but I find that when I am saving my children’s souls, there isn’t a lot of room for laughter.

Half an hour later….

“Mom, come watch 'American Ninja Warriors'!" my older boy Gabriel yelled out to me.

“No I will not!” I snapped, leaping over to them, intent on shortstopping a missed opportunity that looking at a screen might rob them of — in our living room at 9 p.m.

“Why not, Mom? It’s so cool, these amazing athletes do this obstacle course."

I hear the announcer in the background, “Geoffrey is a former inmate committed to turning his life around after 18 years of bad choices. A serious athlete, Geoffrey…” I turned my head to get a look at him. Tatted up, determined and built like a brick house.

“Come on, Mom! Watch with us!” my 7-year-old Gideon said, patting his arm on the couch like he does when he wants the dog to sit next to him. That dog’s no dummy. It’s hard to resist a little boy who desperately wants you to join him on the couch.

I sat down.

Another contestant was introduced. “Kacy is the only female ever to get to the end of the course.”

“She’s adorable,” I said.

“I know, mom, right?” Gabriel said. “She’s the only girl in the history of the show to do it.”

Gideon put his arm around my neck. My body relaxed and the three of us settled in to the couch.

To watch a screen.

Am I an asshole, I thought during a commercial. A hypocrite?

Maybe it’s not just about looking up. Maybe it’s about looking down, up and sideways with someone.

Then I flashed to a moment 18 years ago, me and my sister, already grown women, sitting on the bed with my father, all of us watching “E.R.” We commented on Julianna Margulies’ curls, wondered if she’d reunite with George Clooney, and for that hour my father forgot he had lost his battle with the big C.

Back on the screen in my house, Geoffrey disqualified himself for touching some part of a foam block he wasn’t supposed to. Having spent his 20s in the slammer, Geoffrey was passionate about living an honest life. The commentators on the show wondered why he “DQ’d” himself.

“He really wants to be honest,” Gideon said. “Yes!” I said. Even though a screen was involved, I was pretty sure that was a teachable moment.

“Honesty, always a good way to go,” I added.

Later, I wanted to find Turk on Facebook and send him a message. Because maybe it’s not just about looking up. Maybe it’s about looking down, up and sideways with someone. Yes, we need to get our faces out of handheld devices more, but do we need to vilify the whole of social media and screen culture? It’s not the screen or even Facebook that is evil. But most definitely the isolation it fosters is a big problem, especially when the relationship with the machine supersedes the ones we have with living, breathing people.

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As a parent, I want to lay down the law. No screens — that's it! The same way I often think that fasting would be just so much easier than having to create some kind of healthy balanced diet. But that is not sustainable, and in our culture today, neither is saying “exposure to screens is all bad!” I absolutely agree with Turk’s diatribe.

But that doesn’t mean we should excise all screen experiences from our lives. Especially if we are holding hands while we enjoy them.

Image via Getty Images

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