What I learned about presence from my children

Cross-posted from Medium.

As a parent whose kids grew up alongside the developing ubiquity of mobile connected devices and social media, I have grown pretty used to adopting a curmudgeonly line on the subject of ?being present? at the kitchen table, in the car, on holiday. We all know the routine???where humans, and especially young humans, cluster together their eyes will inevitably flicker towards tiny screens behind which lurk all their social connections, hungry for chatter, vampiric in their need for attention.

?Just turn the bloody thing off,? I?d say, stabbing the air with my fork in the general direction of a connected device. ?Be with the people you?re with.? At which points eyes would roll and a tut would sound and we?d all feel comfortable with our assigned social roles: the Traditional Old Dad Who?s Playing Up His Inner Luddite will tonight by played by Lloyd, the surly offspring who thinks he Just Does Not Get It will be played by one of two adolescents.

In fact, my view has, if anything, become more prevalent. There?s a new working assumption that constant distraction is A Bad Thing, and that we are somehow becoming a species of needy morons twitching at the sound of every new mobile notification.

Thing is, though???I think I might have been very wrong about this. Because now my daughter?s at university, and my son?s often at work when I?m at home because he runs a bar and that means late nights. A couple of hours ago, I texted my daughter a picture of a Welsh castle we?d visited, and she replied an hour later to say she?d seen it. My son will often text me weird questions in the early hours of the morning, which I?ll find on my phone when I wake up.

Both of these things are ?presence?, just of a different kind. What mobile connected devices have provided is something my parents never had???a continual and intensely satisfying reassurance that my children are potentially present at all times, that we remain connected at all times if only digitally so, such that my daughter?s university room is almost a shadow room in my own house, and the reality of my son sitting on a stranger?s sofa discussing obscure movie references is available to me as a confirmed memory the following morning, even though I never experienced it directly.

So, if you?ve got teenage offspring, and you?re cheerfully chastising them for Snapchatting with the friends they saw LIKE AN HOUR AGO, remember this. Their friends are present to them in ways you will only be able to dream of when your children are no longer alongside you, when a few words and a picture on a palm-sized screen provides reassurance, connection and remembrance. This is entirely normal to your children, but this does not make it any less wondrous.

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