Virtual Insanity: Parental Symbiosis With Digital Connectivity
Part 3 In a Series
I recently binge-watched the highly-rated series ‘Beef’ on Netflix. The plot primarily revolves around the second generation of East-Asian immigrants living on the west coast of the United States, to which I intermittently related as an expat parent raising a child away from my home country. However, the story’s central theme was more than just the immigrant experience and cultural identity. Instead, it explored the prevalent anxiety and repressed anger shared by today’s younger generation, transcending their geographical and cultural background.
One scene particularly stood out to me. It was the moment when the protagonist, Danny, started his monologue comparing his generation to guinea pigs in a lab. His/their childhood was consumed by the fruits of Neoliberalism: the advent of internet in the time of their puberty, franchised fast foods, and prevalent, easily accessible pornography. As the actor’s monologue continued, a strange sensation struck me that I had never experienced before. This was not the false feeling of nostalgia for counterculture or disco that I had forced upon myself when watching Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but a feeling that I was witnessing my own culture being portrayed through the lens of nostalgia.
I was reminded of my own childhood growing up in South Korea, where digital media penetrated every aspect of life more fiercely and recklessly than any other place in the world*. This immersion began when I was just 10 years old when I got my first PC, which eventually welcomed the World Wide Web. Countless nights of my teenage years were spent awake, engrossed in playing games, engaging in random chats, and sharing memes within various online communities that were the early versions of Reddit or Quora.
Fueled by constant anonymity at that time, any regulations, manners, and courtesy that are now taken for granted online had not yet been established. On this frail and wild digital landscape, I, a 16-year-old high school girl, would lock the door of my room and surf the internet until 5 a.m. After only one and a half hours of sleep, I’d go to school. Then, my first cell phone arrived as a birthday gift. Since then, I have rarely been disconnected from the internet.
Even after becoming a mom, my life became more digitally connected than ever. I think back on my birthing process when the epidural and my own oxytocin combined to create a mesmerizing harmony. This not only alleviated the physical pain but also left me in a state of ecstasy, providing excitement and confidence over fear of the new phase of life. I may not have been entirely prepared to embrace motherhood and navigate the notorious challenges of postpartum life. Nonetheless, I was sure that being connected to the internet, with its vast resources, would keep me well-informed, emotionally secure, and mentally resilient in the journey ahead, just as it had throughout each week of my pregnancy.
Once I was home after giving birth to our son, I began searching the internet for answers to all sorts of parenting questions. For example, rather than directly asking my Dutch Kraamzorg why she never used alcohol to wipe the newborn’s belly button or rinsed my newborn with clean water after bathing, I looked online. I sought out other moms’ stories to reassure myself that my perineal area would heal and return to normal. One day, I cried while reading random articles about abandoned newborns who had to be adopted or sent to orphanages.
As I held my baby, supporting his head with my non-dominant hand, I held my phone with my dominant hand. This was just after reading a thesis about the danger of using mobile phones near newborns! As I looked to the internet for further guidance, my husband said, with a dirty shirt and a drained gaze, “I feel like there is another caretaker besides the two of us: Google.”
To Be Plugged In, Or Not to be Plugged In, That is the Question
As expat parents, far away from our families, we lacked access to the parenting knowledge handed down from our parents and grandparents. Some of this advice would be considered obsolete, anyway. Instead, we learned how to adapt new information to our circumstances.
For me, as a breastfeeding mom who couldn’t travel long distances, being connected online gave me moments of leisure and entertainment to let go of postpartum stress. I fell into endless scrolling, even when severely sleep deprived and exhausted. Multiple tabs and apps would run constantly on my screen, full of never-ending newborn care chores.
As I readily switched from one tab to another, my attention would constantly traverse between the content on the screen and my baby. I felt slight guilt when my eyes were sometimes glued to the screen instead of focusing on emergent real-life situations. Yet, most of my screen time was, in fact, dedicated to obtaining accurate knowledge on newborn care and this gave me a sense of assurance. That being said, what truly made me content was the simple fact that I was ‘connected’ to the digital space, placating myself by believing in my core that I was ‘doing the right thing.’
Hey, Mom, Get Off The Phone!
A noticeable change occurred in my son when he was 19 months old. His cognitive and physical abilities had significantly progressed, allowing him to understand the world beyond basic, primitive needs. His developing brain craved quality interaction with others every second. Reacting to his babbling and engaging in play with him, needing to set my phone aside, introduced me to the deep pleasure of being present. Nonetheless, I couldn’t deny that frustration occasionally hit me when my fingers were not on the screen. I knew that all I was missing out on was mindless scrolling through social media and glancing at a random newsletter. These things certainly could not compare to the interaction with my baby.
Despite this knowledge, the feeling of being ‘digitally disconnected’ sometimes triggered anxieties within me, much like a patient who abruptly stops taking strong painkillers. When this happened, I could see the disapproval on my son’s face as if to say, “Could you be more present for just a second?”
Like others in my generation who tend to blame their problems on their upbringing, I reflect back on my teenage years and shout, “Why did no one rescue me from this?”
Some might take pity on my chronic ailment, while others who stumble upon this article online, seeking a brief respite from the relentless labors of childcare, may deeply relate to my struggle. Should we seek to cure this addictive type of behavior, or dismiss it? Taking such a dichotomous view won’t provide a solution, as almost every aspect of our lives now involves online access. Yes, the internet has provided me with convenient access to accurate and up-to-date childcare information. But it also presents us with evolving challenges. Screen time control, sharenting (the habitual use of social media to share news and images of one’s children), cyberbullying, and online privacy now all need to be considered.
Parenting In The Digital Age
Old, mythical parenting advice may no longer apply to today’s parenting. However, parental challenges with digital connectivity seem to iterate and evolve across generations. The struggles that my parents had to face 20 years ago when they caught me playing games overnight have now landed on my shoulders. They scolded me to overcome my addiction and tried to navigate the difficulties of controlling screen time.
As a parent, I look at my soon-to-be 2-year-old’s pure mind, yet untouched by the digital world, and ask myself if we could be more than just guinea pigs in a lab. I hope that I can guide my child to establish a healthier and more sustainable relationship with screens than I have. From such relentless parental anxieties, what indeed reassures me is a quote I came upon (online, of course!): “Whatever our children do, they’ll do better than us.”