April 20, 2023

Trains and screens - a weirdly introspective journey

I found my train ride today to be more depressing than usual.  On the way out, there was a young (7? 8?) girl and her mum(?) clearly on a holiday/adventure.  Instantly after departure the mum was on her phone.  The daughter stared out the window a bit, then tried to ask the mum questions. The mum stayed mostly mute and didn't really engage.  Eventually she pulled out a series of ipads and tablets which she gave to the girl, and the girl stopped watching the birds and the trees and stared at the screen instead.

On my return, there was another kid (this is somewhat unusual because I am on a commuter train) who was about three, with her mum.  The mum plugged in her phone and started at it, while the child again tried to engage.  Eventually the child sat on her mum's lap and the mom played her videos on her phone.  

Next to her was a man, watching videos on his phone.

Behind him was a man, scrolling on his phone.

In front of me was a man, watching tik-tok.

I am not immune - I am tired after work and I just want to escape.  I didn't want to read.  I wanted distraction. I connected to the (slow) train wifi and read some blogs, then stopped because I knew the fact that everything around me was bothering me meant I needed some headspace of my own.  I started out the window a bit.  I tried to lean into the discomfort of wanting distraction.

Eventaully the train stopped, and I couldn't stare at nothing anymore.  I started listening to a podcast. I am not some emblem of perfect attention and satisfaction with my own thoughts.

I have not read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman but I think of this line often.  Maybe its perfectly fine for everyone on a train to be buried in devices.  It doesn't look fine to me.  It looks obsessive.  It looks addictive.  

Remember dystopian future movies where ads jump off billboards and interact with characters? How invasive this concept seemed?  It turns out, we didn't need billboards. We pick up the ads and stare right at them, for hours.

I know, in the modern world, I'm not supposed to judge other parents, or other people.  I know I'm supposed to exist with compassion and understanding that everyone is doing the best they can.  But the thing is, I don't think we are doing the best we can.  I think if I asked someone "hey, why does your 5 year old have a tablet?  Is this in alignment with your highest principles and values?" they would probably say no.  They would also probably hit me. 

I wish I could take a snapshot of the train and share it with everyone.  Ask them all if this is what they want to do with their time.  

Children are amazing.  Humans are amazing.  For whatever reason, today I was sad watching the subdued amazing in a train full of screens.


  1. As a person with an unhealthy relationship to my phone, and a mother whose child has an ipad and a gaming system... this all makes me sad, too. I don't have any solutions, for my own personal digital addiction let alone for society at large, and I DO think that devices have utility and benefits alongside their flaws, but I understand and have felt your disillusionment with the state of things.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I know that screens and digital life is "my thing" and I'm sure that other people feel just as passionately about veganism or climate change or all sorts of other worthy causes. Thanks for reading and commenting even if you aren't on the same path as me, I think it's a hard digital world for everyone to navigate right now.

  2. I am so appreciating all your insights on this. For the most part, I've worked hard to avoid the siren song of screens (especially my phone, in particular), but there is ALWAYS work to be done, and your posts along with a book I just finished have finally allowed me to break free of charging my phone by my bed. For the last week I have done ZERO scrolling bed and my screen time is hovering around 30 minutes/day (a few work things and then 20 minutes doing Wordle and Canuckle with my family each day). I also have been setting it to grayscale which really does help. It's a shock to my senses when I turn the colour back on to do Wordle!

    Love this line: "It doesn't look fine to me. It looks obsessive. It looks addictive." Smartphones are designed to hold our attention just like slot machines. But who feels better after hours of scrolling on their phone. I have also been leaning into/riding the way of discomfort of just...standing and doing nothing when I'm waiting in line. I have also started leaving my phone at home when I go for a walk. No one needs to get me so urgently that it can't wait until I get home.

    Again - thanks, Rachel! These are really helping me further hone my own thoughts on tech, especially as it relates to what my own children see and adopt as habits further down the line when they have their own tech.

    1. I think you have a very balanced approach to your phone use! 30 minutes a day is basically nothing as compared to most people, and probably the same as I spend texting on my dumb phone on my busier days. I don't think I was as interested/passionate about this topic before I had kids, but I think that's also part of the general change that kids bring - suddenly certain things are in way more focus than they were before. It's really great reading your blog and hearing your comments about this and someday when I do smartphones again I hope I can be as balanced as you are

  3. Ug, I feel you! When I am on the BART, I would guess that 98% of the riders are staring at their phones and the other 2% are maybe just tired so they are staring at nothing. Also I had a flight last week where the people in front of me had 6 kids (!) and all of them had iPads and the older two or three had phones too! They all spent the whole flight on their devices. Not only do I wonder what is happening to our society, but I think of how expensive that must be! 6 kids! I don't even have an iPad!

    I have a lot of thoughts about this, obviously, as I grew up in the mountains and we went OUTSIDE when we were bored, or if anything, we read books (well I did. My brother was a movie watcher). We did not have television (we had a TV but could only watch movies, no cable), so we played cards or games. But I know I sound like a curmudgeon; however I do think that kids will still do these things if the parents do these things with them. I play cards with my friend's kids and I make them go on hikes with me and I make them talk to me (!!!) at dinner rather than looking at their devices. I only hope that these things will be fond memories for them later.

    1. You sounds like a great friend for kids! I think parents are so tired often that they default to screens but I really think kids love doing things. Even though my kids will look at other peoples screens they much prefer games, walks, playing outside. And my both kids definitely remember people who take them on adventures.

      6 ipads is a lot of $$ but I guess it's small change compared to 6 flight tickets?

      I struggle with TV because when I was a kid we did watch a lot of TV, and I think I turned out mostly fine. However I think TV was different in the 80's - it wasn't made with computers to be as attention holding as possible. Shows now are designed to be addictive to kids - Sesame Street was designed to be watched by adults with kids.

      I know I sound like a curmudgeon too... but I think you're great to engage kids. I think kids are little people and we wouldn't ignore grandma by sticking her in front of an ipad at dinner so I don't know why it's so common to do that to kids.

  4. We don't limit screen time per se. When the kids are depending on TV or Xbox for entertainment, I think it's my job as a parent to engage them in something better. Sometimes I am not up to the task (LOL) and they watch more screens.

  5. I am so much more aware of how much people stare at their screens EVERYWHERE! I've gotten a lot more self-conscious about taking out my phone in public just for scrolling. I try to avoid it unless I have a legitimate reason to use it (e.g. take a photo, make a phone call, look up directions).

  6. I usually listen to a podcast on the train, but I don't look at a screen because I get travel sick, so I have a no screen existence forced on me which is a good thing because I don't really have any urge to watch something. I like checking out what's going on around me. I'm a bit older than you and my youngest child is 19, so the screens thing only came in later in their childhoods but we would still have rules around it. With the caveat, that I odn't know what was going on in these mother's lives (they might have needed to deal with or attend to sometihng urgently) as a general rule for me, I think if you are on the train with your child it seems like a good time to interact with them ... there's not really anything else to do.