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It's Nelly's World

Las Vegas Living Room

alec vanderboom

It feels like what is taking shape may well be the battle of my life. It's a classic war, with a new twist: the digital-age takeback of a child's mind by a parent who Knows Better (and parents always know better, as you well know).

One Sunday evening, when my son was still swimming around inside me gills and tail intact, we went to the local inn for its old-fashioned smorgasbord (I confess to filching roast beef scraps--after all, I wasn't eating them but I was allowed to have all I wanted--and taking them out in a napkin to the border collie waiting in our car). Across the dining room was a long table at which was seated what I took to be an extended family, some twelve or fourteen people straddling the ages. But there was something strange about their seating arrangement. One of them was standing. Throughout the entire meal. Facing the wall.

The little boy had his back to his family, his hands furiously working the buttons of his Gameboy. He was in a world of his own, and I imagined it was a very small world indeed. He seemed on the verge of being sucked inside the small black device, and I bet he surely wished he could.

The image printed and framed itself in my mind in that instant. The subject was alienation, addiction, and a sad situation. I titled it: "Never."

I was never going to let this become my child, and for a long time I was able to fend it off, more or less. Of course, we watched movies on screen, and we looked for things, and we occasionally played games. But I never felt I might lose my child to the sirens inside a microchip, until now.

He received a netbook as a gift before starting a new school, and the first day came home and announced that it was good he had one, because all the students were "required" to have one. This was the first, uh, untruth to be attached to the instrument. There were more to come; an alarming direction in a child who rarely if ever lied.

Certainly, the computer is helping. It helps overcome what is for him the laboriousness of handwriting, so that his written work becomes fuller and richer when he employs a keyboard. His science teacher uses a site to pass on homework and allow the kids to communicate with each other on their answers. After lunch, however, the seventh-grade boys eschew the outdoors, where they might run around, throw a Frisbee, wander, or talk, and head to the library to bend their heads over their solitary computers and play video games. When I learned this, my blood ran a little cold.

Every day I would ask if he'd gone outdoors at all, and the answer was always no, even on those bright glorious days of fall: the campus has a drop-dead view of the mountains. Then again, so does the town dump; sublime views are cheap around here.

At the school's annual Harvest Dinner, on the lawn in full view of the aforesaid picturesque vista, I bumped paper cups with the student body ombudsman. We loved everything about the school, I allowed, except for this one little problem . . . my son the addict. What should I do? I'd tried the 45-minute rule, the one-day-a-week-without-screens, the threats and the positive reinforcement. "Yes, Mom. I'm turning it off." Fifteen minutes later, I go upstairs to check, and there's the hasty click of the laptop closing, the furtive face looking up. "You don't trust me!" I take it away, and I get "You're stealing my property!" And, as he sees his mother the addict boot up the computer ("boot up" for both heroin and the Dell, yes, very interesting), he calls me on the carpet for my hypocrisy. Even I know that "I use this computer for my work!" isn't the only truth.

The fellow at school tells me he knows, and he agrees: he's concerned too. "Last year we had to do an intervention on a student. We came and ripped the computer out of his wall. He lay there on the couch, twitching and crying." The Sunday paper's Parade supplement coincidentally contains a "special report": "Born to Be Wired: Being connected 24/7 is changing how our kids live, and it may even be altering their brains." Great. But I know this already. ("The prefrontal cortex . . . is not fully developed until the early 20s"; "When kids play video games, that little pleasure chemical dopamine also kicks in. The intermittent reinforcement that games provide is similar to gambling, and for some kids, just as addictive." Most at risk? Loner boys.)

Perhaps I could have seen this coming from decades ago, in Poughkeepsie, at the bar across the street from campus. Every night the last semester of school, we closed it down, a few friends from the art history/philosophy major sector. Every night, we stood in front of the Galaga console, its pinging-whooshing constant and exhilarating. If the barkeep hadn't thrown us out at 2 a.m., we might have stood there all night, our beer glasses sweating on the table behind us as we bathed in the black glow from the pleasure dome before us. If only I had known. But I was powerless to stop.