Sunday 23 July 2017

Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart

Profile Books, €14.50

Rosita Sweetman

This is a fab book by a witty, single-parent mum about her insanely courageous decision, to pull the plug on her own and, much more terrifyingly, her three teenagers' IT equipment -- for six months.

Yup, fiftysomething Susan Maushart, one-time "kickass feminist New Yorker", latterly single mum of three teens in Perth, Australia, became so alarmed at the collapse of core values in her home -- with flickering screen dominating their lives, literacy, attention spans and knowledge fell while self-absorption and narcissism rose -- that she decided a spell of fasting was the only way back to sanity.

One of her inspirations was Henry Thoreau's On Walden Pond -- the old codger's 19th-Century book about his retreat to the woods to find life away from the hussle and bustle.

"It's an experiment in living. We're all going to do it do together as a family. And it's going to change our lives," she announced to her astounded offspring -- while on holiday. She had perfected her "pudding in the face" surprise offensive tactic over 14 years of lone parenting. Wisely, she had adult friends present, it was Christmas and they were in a pretty low-tech setting by the sea. Just to add to the fun, she also announced a two-week total electricity ban. To get them all in the mood. Yikes.

As with most modern teenagers in developed societies, Maushart's kids were "digital natives". All of the IT goodies they could get their hands on, they did, and Maushart spent a lot of talk time competing with those flickering screens.

Not that she was a Luddite herself. A working writer, commentator, radio producer and journalist (this is her fifth book), she's an enthusiastic media user. And it was her own iPhone use (sleeping with it, going into the loo with it) that was one of the triggers that led her to question (more drastically than most) the sanity of being "wired" morning till night.

There was no eureka moment, but an accumulation of worries; a sense that they were not "living" their lives and that greater "connectivity" -- via an iPod soundtrack, Facebook updates, Google searches -- was driving them further (and further) apart.

She dug up a lot of rather worrying statistics, such as the 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation research which shows American teens spend up to seven hours and 40 minutes a day in front of screens, or up to 11 hours, if mobile phones, texting, sharing etc are factored in. More time then than a full-time job.

Three-quarters have TVs in their bedrooms -- with internet access, 96 per cent have mobiles phones. Most of them suffer from sleep deprivation (only 17 per cent of "wired" teens get enough sleep), and far from being whizzes at multi-tasking online, their capacity for coherent thought is shockingly low.

The day before D-Day, Maushart began sequestering gadgets hidden in filing cabinets, garden sheds, under stairs. She had two trump cards: she obviously adores her children (and they her) and she has strong nerves.

A couple of days after the fast began, her youngest, Sussy, then 15, announced she was going to live with her dad (who has broadband). Maushart didn't panic but waited calmly for the prodigal's return, reassuring that daughter/ father bonding was "a good thing". The prodigal returned, spent two months sleeping (making up for years of massive sleep deprivation, thanks to going to bed with laptop, mobile phone and iPod), and emerged to become a sweet-natured, straight-A student.

The "blobbieness" that drove Maushart mad, the "personal untidiness, poor eating habits, disordered sleep-wake patterns, ineffective stuff management (losing personal items, forgetting to take lunch, losing track of money)" -- previously attributed to teenage-ness, turned out to be more to do with "wiredness".

And then her son Ben, practically prosthetically attached to his huge gaming computer, suddenly re-discovered his saxophone and within days had swapped the endless (and endlessly stupid) virtual slaughter of video games, for "a massive multiplayer game with endless levels -- jazz". Yay!

Her eldest daughter made it into college, got her driving licence, and carried out two difficult journalism internships; 35 hours of "free" time was suddenly hers.

As a family, everything was transformed. They started talking to one another ("What is this drug we crave? Could it be one another?"). They hung out in each other's rooms. The kids all piled into mum's bed on Sunday and grabbed a bit of the Sunday papers. They started staying at the table after dinner and having conversations.

Eating became a pleasure again. One of Maushart's saddest statistics is four out of 10 Australian mums find dinner "an unpleasant experience". Well yeah, yelling for 40 minutes (minimum) to get everyone to the table, sitting in silence while they scoff, their minds on their screens which they can't wait to scurry back to once din-dins is over, does not make for fun.

Of course, there were bleak moments. Times when they stood at opposite poles, kids shouting: "This was your idea, mum."

One of Maushart's theories is we have become frightened of our kids, particularly terrified of the dreaded: "I'm bored." We rush to fill that black hole -- gleefully aided by the IT industry -- without question.

The value of boredom is lost -- as Bertrand Russell called it "one of the great motive powers" -- and we miss giving our kids an opportunity to freewheel mentally. Or as one young woman put it to Maushart regarding her long stint in "Dullsville" Perth: "Maybe it was the lack of stimulation (here) that made you so productive, and determined."

Maushart isn't preachy; she doles out the horror statistics because she cares about what's happening to the kids though she can LOL (laugh out loud) with the best of them; what scares her is this gigantic, unregulated experiment being run on kids (and adults).

And then, right at the end of the book, just to make a great story perfect, Maushart decides it's time to go home. Leaving her (delighted) three teens to look after things she returns to visit, and to recce her home turf; within weeks she has bought a farmhouse in upstate New York and this wonderful family's next experiment begins.

Here's hoping this warm and witty mum writes about it.

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