As much as we disparage it, technology brings us together

By JJ Rosen August 31, 2021
photo: Young man looking at cell phone

This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.

I’ve spent years telling my kids to put their phones down.

I’m always lecturing them about the dangers of too much screen time, too much social media, and too much time playing video games. No matter what I say I always get the same response that every parent dreads, “You just don’t understand my generation!”

It was not until the past few days that I finally understood.

Like thousands of other parents, last week we dropped our oldest kid off at college.

We spent days preparing. Packing everything from laundry detergent to ramen noodles, pillows to pencils, and in our case an entire drum set (his roommate is very lucky), we ended up with a total of nine bags to carry with us to Miami where our son would set off on a new adventure as a college freshman.

Upon arrival, we waited for two hours in the August Florida sun to check in before we finally made it to our kid’s new home, which is a classic cinder-block dorm room that was about the size of our rental car. It was time for the parents to go to work. Game on.

Trying not to overdo it, we told our new college student to step aside, Mom and Dad would transform this plain room into a cool new home.  Our 18-year-old tried to convince us that he’s “got it,” and we were free to just leave.  But we knew he was just being polite, so we stayed.

Like any (self-proclaimed) cool Dad, my role was to optimize all the technology components in his new home away from home.  Although both my wife and son rolled their eyes a bit, I went all out. By the end of the night, I had set up:

  • A wireless booster to make sure the signal in the room was as good as possible.
  • A TV mounted on a swingable bracket with a Roku stick and a video game connection.
  • Seven tracking Tiles that were strategically placed in our kid’s wallet, backpack, drum bags, glasses case, and just for good measure, his laundry bag (so we could see if he ever used it.)
  • A desktop computer and a laptop so he would have a backup if either broke.
  • Uber and Lyft apps on his phone.
  • A webcam and a headset (in case he ever wanted to communicate with his hovering parents.)
  • An electric toothbrush and electric razor.
  • An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to provide him with backup power in case the lights ever went out.
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But I wasn’t quite done.

Knowing he was often on Instagram for social media and Discord (an online chat platform popular with gamers), I loaded both apps on my phone giving me a few more ways to track what he was up to and communicate with him day and night.

The next day, after putting some finishing touches on the décor, it was time for us to say goodbye.  We each gave him a hug and told him to call, text, or email us if he needed anything.  He patted us each on the back and said, “Don’t worry guys, I think I will do better with this than you all. I’ll be fine.”  And with that we were gone.

As a tech consultant, I spend so many hours on my computer and phone during the day that I rarely look at my screens at night. I’m not a huge social media person, and other than playing my Atari as a kid, I have never been much of a gamer.

It only took three days for all of that to change.

After not hearing a word from our newly independent teenager, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I loaded up my Tile app to check in on his location, I signed on to Instagram to check for any posts he’d made over the past few days. I fired up Discord to see if he was online and could chat, and I even sent him a “Words With Friends” invite so we could start gaming together.

I went from years of constantly telling my kids to get off their screens to being constantly on screens myself.  Suddenly, I could chat with my firstborn anytime, I could see the highlights of his day, and I could have fun with him from a distance playing an online game. I was all in.

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Sending our kid off to school reminded me that the good and bad of technology just depends on what you use it for.

It was at dinner that our younger kid (still at home with us) finally said, “Dad, I don’t think you should stare at your phone so much.”  I responded by telling him he just doesn’t understand my generation.

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