26 September 2012

Thoughts on "The Winter of Our Disconnect" by Susan Maushart

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Genre: nonfiction, stunt memoir
On my TBR list?: yes, since Mar 2012

The ridiculously long title pretty much explains at a glance what the book is about. Susan Maushart, a single mother of three teenagers living in Australia, decides that they should spend six months without using screens in their home. This meant no TV, no computers, no game consoles, and no smartphones. She even started the experiment with a week of no electricity. The book alternates between journal entries and statistical information. I found myself wishing this was more of a memoir because I wanted more journal and less sociology, but the book is still very readable.

This is one of the books that I read on my recent vacation and it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to say about it. As I was sitting in my deck chair watching my teens run around with new found friends and jumping in and out of the pool, I was quite ready to dispute Maushart's assertion that all teenagers are glued to their devices and can't live without them. On the drive from Florida back to North Carolina, I was enlightened somewhat when I watched my daughter C1 practically climb over everyone to get out of the van when we stopped at McDonald's so she could get to the free wi-fi. I didn't realize C1 had become that attached to her online communities, especially since she doesn't have a cell phone. I still maintain that as much as my kids enjoy their digital entertainments, they are more capable than most teens of fighting off boredom without them. Due to our wavering financial stability, we've had several periods over the years where our cable service (phone, TV, internet) has gotten turned off and we have left it off for a time while we paid more important bills. My kids didn't whine; they immediately switched into Luddite mode. They read books, played cards, and listened to music.

Although Maushart isn't the originator of the terms "digital native" and "digital immigrant", she uses them extensively in this book and hammers home the idea that we, as over-40s, will never totally understand technology because we remember a time before it existed. This idea annoys me, mainly because I don't like being lumped with the digital immigrants simply by virtue of my age. In my house, I am the one who understands more about computers and digital devices than my husband or my children. I'm surrounded by digital immigrants in my real life and they are all different ages. I'm taking an introductory computer course now as a requirement for my major, and there are 18-year-olds who are more afraid of the technology than I am.  I would go a step further and call some of my friends digital prisoners. They are being forced to use technology against their will. If they could go back to the days when you drove to the office of the electric company and paid the bill in person with cash, they would. I am not like these people.

As with many books and articles of this type, I think that some of Maushart's assertions in this book have to do with class and the culture you are in. Even though she is a single mother, she sends at least one of her kids to private school and helps all three of them keep up with the latest gadgets. We have more gadgets than most of our local peers, but our kids still have to share. There are no TVs or computers in their bedrooms. The three that are still at home do not have cell phones. Maushart published her book in 2004 and she spoke  of teenagers being obsessed then. We live in a semi-rural area where many of my kids' friends just started having extended access to the internet outside of school this year. They still have one computer that they share with their parents so most of their Facebook messaging is done on prepaid phones, which means they may be all over Facebook one month and then you don't see them for two months while they are saving up the money to pay for another month of time on their phones.

One theme that popped up repeatedly in the book was the idea that our kids are becoming less self-sufficient because they can access us too easily. Maushart gave an example of a parent whose college-age son called her because he got off the train and didn't see the sign he expected to see so he didn't know what to do. Her point was that before cell phones, this kid would have had to just ask somebody instead of using his mother as a human GPS. I agree somewhat, but I also think it depends on the personality of the kid. My eldest daughter used to call or text me every time she had to fill out a form and ask me what to put in every single field. That is why we sent her away to school -- she needed to be thrown out of the nest like a baby bird so she could figure out that her wings work without our help. My next child in line isn't like that. She tries to take care of as much as she can before she has to call me in for assistance.

This book made me wish that my friends read this type of stuff because I would love to discuss it with other parents I know. If your book club reads nonfiction, then I would recommend this title. It has enough in it to spark discussion without being too highbrow like some books I've seen put forth as book club titles.

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