Screen Rage

At five years-old, it’s no fun getting interrupted while you’re focused on something. As a parent, I compensate for that by employing a series of intricately planned measures to guide my son from whatever he happens to be doing towards whatever it is that I want him to do instead.

The extremity of these measures depends entirely what’s being interrupted. If he’s playing outside with his sister, the steps I take are fairly mundane. I give him a few, gentle time checks (“five minutes until dinner” … “3 minutes until dinner” …), and then offer something enticing enough to make putting down the ball seem like less of an intrusion (“Tonight’s chicken has both teri and yaki on it!”).

If I need to transition my son from building a cardboard village with grandma to going to bed for the night, I need to combine my time checks with some subtle threats and an Obi Wan Kenobi-like response to his three hundred or so repetitions of some variation of, “No. I don’t want to. But you said. Why are you doing this to me?”

The techniques are all pretty simple and effective. Until it’s time to get him to put down the iPad.

The time checks, subtle threats, and feeble attempts at reasoned parenting are useless. You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and you don’t bring traditional parenting strategies to a fight to wrestle a possessed child back from a retina-display, 3.1 million pixel, demonic poltergeist.

Anyone who’s been within a thousand miles of one can tell you… There is no tantrum like a Put-Down-the-iPad Tantrum.

First I need to prepare. I put on my hazmat suit, helmet, and thick, dark goggles to make it less likely that I too will be pulled into the light. Any parent of an iPad-era child will be familiar with the other tools in my arsenal: Ear plugs, body padding, iron manacles, shock paddles, a straight jacket, an inflatable kayak (speaking in tongues while the head spins exorcist-like 360s can release a significant amount of saliva), WiFi jammers, tear gas, tasers; and for re-entry, candles, classical music, smelling salts, and several black and white paper printouts of familiar places and loved ones.

And even with all that, I give myself about a 50% shot of bringing my son’s attention back to the terrestrial world before the iPad battery runs out.

Of course, as in most cases, our kids are simply modeling our behavior. Having a disproportionately enraged reaction to being interrupted during screen-time is a characteristic that’s hardly limited to five year-olds. I regularly find myself snapping at my kids or feeling overly irritated with adults when faced with the seemingly simple demand that I drag my gaze away from my screen when I’m in the middle of something (anything really). And since I’m always-on, and my screen provides access to so much of what I do – work, social life, leisure time, writing this article – I’m permanently  in the middle of something. My son was born around the time of the original iPhone. So I’ve been asking him to “Just give me a second” for his whole life.

It’s not just that we’re often distracted. It’s the short-fused anger that bubbles up when life pulls us away from our screens. Sadly, it might not be that surprising to see a technology addict in this state of mind. But the same behavior often surfaces among folks who are recent smartphone converts. I’ve seen people who have historically maintained a swami-like calmness to their demeanor snap angrily at someone who interrupts them when they’re focused on their new screen.

Even for the formerly ascetic, it’s a slippery slope. Om … Om … Om … OMG!

Wanting to focus and being irritated by distractions and interruptions is nothing new. I’m sure my dad missed a few of my childhood moments while he was at the office. But now the office is seamlessly connected to games, music, texting, email, social networking, entertainment, and everything else. The hierarchy of things worthy of earning our focus has largely collapsed. If it glows, it’s worthy. The screen doesn’t care what you’re doing. I see modern parents miss childhood moments while they’re playing Words with Friends. “Just give me a second…”

In a way, staring at a screen is lot like being alone in your car. When someone cuts you off, you adopt a totally different personality; one defined by urgency and often explosive anger. No one can hear you scream as you speed down the highway with the music blaring and windows rolled up.

Screen rage is the new road rage. Except everyone can hear you scream.

These days, about the only thing that’s more frustrating than being interrupted while we’re interacting with our screens is trying to get the attention of someone else who’s interacting with theirs. Maybe this occasional glimpse into the digital mirror gives us hope that there’s a light at the end of the tantrum tunnel.

Of course, that light could just be coming from another screen.

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