A sixth form computer room in 1998, and it’s hard to imagine how excited I was to hear a low-quality 30 second clip of a song by Brazilian-American metal band Soulfly. It was the first time I had used this new-fangled internet thingy people were so excited about, and of course the first thing I wanted to use it for was to listen to music. I sat, headphones on, in awe and wonder at the idea that I could hear a bit of a song without buying the CD or waiting for it to come on the radio. Little did I know where it would lead.
Stepping back a bit, to 1993, when music began to truly matter to me, options for hearing the kind of music I loved were very limited. Evenings on Radio 1 were pretty much the only place you could hear indie or alternative music and I listened religiously to the Evening Session, John Peel and Mark & Lard. MTV existed (and was still primarily a channel that played music videos), but not in my house. You might get the occasional band or video I liked on Top of the Pops or The Chart Show (the first place I heard Nirvana incidentally), but you could hardly rely on it.
I used to tut at them, mentally, if not audibly, the parents looking at Facebook on their phones instead of paying attention to their children. I should have realised that, as always, it’s a bad idea to judge others.
Even before I was a parent, I was aware of the attention sucking nature of phones, tablets and every other internet enabled device. As Dave Gorman noted in his Googlewhack Adventure the internet contains, essentially, everything in the world and everything in the world can be very distracting. This is true at work (what’s the harm in just quickly checking the Guardian website? and Twitter? and writing a quick blog post?) and at home. If I have a rare evening in alone I find myself distracted from my book, film or TV programme by checking in the internet every 5 minutes.
This never used to be the case before I had internet access at home, or even when accessing the internet meant booting up my supremely slow Windows PC. I used to be happy enough spending lazy Sunday afternoons reading a book or the paper, with some music on. Now I realise that even this level of multi-tasking is beyond me. If I’m engrossed in a book I’m not concentrating on the music, and if I’m paying attention to the music I’m not taking in the book. As well as being worse at multi-tasking I’m also, due to the aforementioned internet distractions, worse at concentrating on one thing for a long time. It’s a pretty poor combination really.
Parenting is the one area where the distractions of the internet cause genuine problems. It’s one thing to be distracted from a TV programme by your tablet, but another thing entirely to be distracted from your child. Even though I know it’s a bad idea, it’s so easy on those rare occasions when my daughter is happily playing by herself with her toys to think, “what’s the harm in having a quick look at Facebook or my e-mail, it’ll only take a few seconds?”. The problem being of course, that my daughter will choose that exact moment to grab something she shouldn’t, fall over or otherwise injure herself.
The internet has revolutionised our lives, but also eroded our ability to live in the moment, and if I’ve ever needed to live in the moment it’s now, when time with my daughter is rare and precious. Sometimes, I should just hide all my mobile devices, or switch the wi-fi off when I’m looking after my daughter (but then there’s still 3G, curses!).
In the end, I’m fortunate that my daughter never allows me to be distracted from her for too long. If i’m not paying attention to her she will soon demand it. If she sees me on my phone or tablet she will immediately be over shouting “babies, babies”. As far as she is concerned all mobile devices are magic books enabling her to look at pictures of babies, one of her favourite activities (actually, judging by my Facebook feed, she is essentially correct).
So, when I see parents seemingly distracted from their children by their phones, I try not judge. Let he who has never sneakily checked the cricket score whilst looking after child cast the first tut is an important, if suprisingly specific, life lesson.