Electronic Idol

While we waited in a 20-minute line at the entrance to Disneyland last month with my family, I noticed a father with his wife and two young kids in the line next to us. He was working on his cell phone while they waited. The kids looked excited and, like most others, were busy playing with each other, laughing, and doing the things kids do. Without looking up from his PDA, the father would periodically call out "stop that," "hold still," or other prompts to his children. After about 10 minutes of doing this, he had enough and let them have it. This time, he put down his phone, grabbed them by the shoulder, and said "we are at Disneyland, the happiest place on earth, and you are acting terrible. I want you to stop it right now and act appropriately." Then he went back to work on his phone.

He wasn't the only father or mother I saw similarly engaged with his cell phone over the next few days. I saw people checking e-mail on the Peter Pan ride, surfing the Internet while in line for lunch and making palm pilot notes while waiting for the parade to start. I also heard more than one of them scold their children with a firm, "We are at the happiest place on earth, now behave!"

I've been that kind of dad before. In fact, I check e-mail so compulsively on my Blackberry, that I decided to disable it before going on vacation this year so that I wouldn't be tempted to pull it out during a break in the action to do some business. Still, I found myself using the Internet feature to check the weather or updates on the election coverage. More than once, my wife has had to remind me that when we are out on a date, it is not the right time to send text messages, update Facebook or check in on a baseball game. More than once, I've heard my wife say she is ready to throw my laptop into the trash so that I will pay some attention to the kids or the family. More than once, I've stayed up too late into the night returning e-mail or working on a proposal, or worse, mindlessly surfing the internet to catch up on the latest sports stats, political polls or weird news that happen in the world. And more than once, I've sat on the sofa, yelling at my kids to get back in bed while I work on my computer.

But that day at Disneyland, it hit me. I watched the faces of the young kids, anticipating what was next in their "happiest place on earth" experience, only to be tuned out by their parents. What could have been so important that it kept that father's full attention from being paid to his kids? I could make the justifications for him -- if he didn't work, they wouldn't get to go to Disneyland because they wouldn't be able to afford it. The only way he could get the day off would be to answer a few e-mails while he was in line. They were only waiting to get into the park--that was not the important part of the Disney experience, etc.

I could make excuses for him because I've made the same ones myself. But it all became so clear to me at that moment what an act of self-betrayal that was. It has nothing to do with making a living or sacrificing time. Instead, it has to do with worshiping the electronic idols of the world. By worship, I don't mean that any of us would intentionally choose our Blackberry over our children if given a choice (although, there are certainly days that would be a tempting trade). But, what are we giving up by being connected to the online world, and what does that say about our devotions? Who is being cheated out of our time and full attention? How many kid's bedtime stories have been rushed or skipped so a parent can get online and get caught up with the world? How many have stayed up too late too often by being too distracted by the never-ending world of information? How many marriages have been deprived of time that could have been spent talking or doing something together? How many better things could have been done with the time that has been wasted in cyberspace?

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I worry that we are facing a plague. One of deterioration of marriage and family that has never seen the likes of the damage the online world has to offer. Anyone can publish a website these days, write or read opinions on any topic, conduct nearly any business, and could spend all day and all night on the Internet without running out of interesting things to do. To complicate matters further, we sometimes get fooled into thinking we are truly helping others by our online presence. We give someone a needed lift through an encouraging e-mail. We take the time to promote the cause of freedom through an inspiring blog post. We fulfill our civic duty by keeping up with current events. We reward ourselves with much-needed "me" time by relaxing and exploring some areas of interest on the Internet to unwind from a busy day. And sometimes those things are true.

Take away, however, the justifications and look at what is happening. Is a person more uplifted emotionally by staying home and reading an online note from a friend who understands what it is like to struggle with depression than to get outside for some fresh air and a walk with people he/she loves? Is being caught up with the current news more important than helping a young child with homework? Have we worked so hard at the things that are important in life to justify an hour of mindless web-surfing, or are our lives relatively easy compared with the physical and emotional burdens some of our ancestors faced?

There is a saying about good, better, best. If we can get diverted into spending our valuable time doing "good," we sometimes never get to the better or the best. Consequently, "good" diversions can be just as destructive as bad ones. And the scary thing is, we all can see pretty plainly the evils of the online world -- identify theft, pornography, hate speech, etc. But maybe we never saw this part coming -- keep us all so engaged and tangled in seemingly noble things that we disconnect from the real world around us.

I find that easiest to do in the evening. Which is why I've stopped pulling out my computer after work unless absolutely necessary. I know if I pull it out I will not exercise, I will not lay by my kids to help them wind down at night, I will get distracted by something on my computer that will take me away from my family.

I've got a long way to go, but I have had an awakening. Instead of seeing my Blackberry and my laptop as my friends that I long to return to whenever we are apart, I now see them for what they are -- electronic idols, trying to zap away my time, my life and my real relationships.