A week or so ago, my almost-four-year-old daughter cried out in the middle of the night, disturbed by a nightmare. I wish I could say that I jumped out of bed to go to her, but I’ll be honest, our pandemic sleeping arrangement is one in which her scream practically pierced my eardrum. Sleeping in “her spot” right down the middle of our bed between my husband and me, she sat up with a fright, screaming out: “No...No....No.....I need more screeeeen time!” Sweaty, her eyes bleary with sleep, it took me more than a minute to calm her in her inconsolable state. The thought of being without an iPad was a genuine COVID night terror.
I am not proud of this. I’m actually pretty ashamed. “Screen time” is a point of great tension in our house. Alexa has become the resident arbiter of when “time’s up” rather than my husband or me continuing to switch off who plays “bad cop.” I know we aren’t the only parents wrestling with the intoxicating, addictive pull of the iPad’s glow. Especially this year, when nearly all socializing outside of our immediate families has been relegated to a screen, even four-year-olds deserve a window to the outside world.
But my young daughter’s onscreen relationships are different than even her older brother’s were at this age only four years ago. While he preferred more traditional children’s entertainment—with a similar addictive nature as one episode easily rolled into two or more—she has discovered a different genre. YouTube is the new reality TV where she watches other children streaming their own play time to millions of other children, mysteriously aided by their quite entrepreneurial parent-producers. My daughter double checks to make sure I’ve subscribed to the channels she likes to watch. And it seems now she also wants to become a YouTube star. She asks me to take videos of her pretend-baking, as she narrates each small action of how she beats her pretend eggs and pours them into a pan. “It’s for my subscribers,” she says. At Target, she squeals over a doll of Diana, one of her favorite YouTubers. Even if I don’t know what my daughter is watching, Target certainly does.
As someone who spends my days invested in building human connection, I’m troubled by my child’s attachment to the iPad and her strange relationship with both the children she watches and those she imagines are watching her. We were already well on our way to a deeply hyper-mediated world when COVID-19 struck a year ago. The sustained drought of real-world socializing has only made our dependency that much worse. For people older than 12, our memory of time before the pandemic is strong enough to compare to a changing future. But my children—certainly my youngest—won’t remember a Before Time. Her worldview, like that of many kids, is being fundamentally shaped by this period of dramatic change. She’ll only remember what comes after. Which makes me wonder: what habits is she forming that will survive this unending season of mediated isolation? How will our lives—and our society—be reshaped by it?
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Ari Wallach, a futurist focused on trans-generational empathy. Ari, who is profiled in our Through the Prism feature, below, reminded me that the clues to the future can often be found in the past. Our ancestors pass down to us what Ari calls “emotional heirlooms”: stories, traumas, values, feelings, interactions, and even rituals that we in turn pass on to our children, and our children’s children, which shape both who we are now and who they will be and become. Every Passover, my mother makes her Grandma Fannie's matzo ball soup from scratch. Along with traditional ingredients (carrots, celery, parsnips, and chicken) my mom lights up as she places the non-traditional big, beautiful heirloom tomato into the soon-to-be-simmering pot. "For Grandma Fannie," she says. I imagine my mom as a child learning the art of chicken soup-making from someone she loved whom I never knew, enshrining the importance of ritual, remembrance, love, and the generational connection of sacred meals. The culture we live in today is the product of our ancestors’ choices as much as it is our own. What we hold onto in the course of a generation or two is what ultimately shapes the culture of the distant future.
A great deal of research has shown the devastating effect the pandemic has had on so many, especially America’s youth. Academic performance has faltered in a year of online schooling. At the same time, juvenile crime, suicidal ideation, and mental-health related emergency room visits have increased among teens. Preliminary findings show the stress and isolation of the pandemic and the physical separation of masks has reduced the emotional connection between new mothers and babies. And new estimates predict a “baby bust” of 300,000 fewer births in a year when America has witnessed 574,000 more deaths than in any recent year. Parents and their children experienced levels of stress, pain, and trauma this year, en masse, likely seeding long-term effects with generational impact that we cannot yet fully comprehend or predict.
Yet, even as the pandemic brought many of us, including our families, systems, and institutions to their knees, this fundamental breakdown has opened up the possibility of a breakthrough too. Where before it seemed that life would continue at its breakneck pace regardless of the intervention, the hundreds of choices that have enshrined a culture of too much work and too little well-being have become much more visible. If masks prevent babies from establishing connection with their caregivers, imagine what they are doing to all of us? Constantly responding to the pings from my phone while I’m playing with my kids can’t be so different. And “Zoom fatigue” sends the body a clear message: “It’s time to stop.”
Status quo bias is a key safeguard of human safety, training our brains to revert back to previous behavior, in spite of better options. But the prolonged virtual reality of the pandemic has made the status quo of the Before Times hazy indeed. As vaccines roll out and we can once again open our arms, our homes, and our hearts more fully to each other, we get to decide how we’ll live.
I wonder if one of the emotional heirlooms passed down to me that I am passing down to my daughter is the comfort she feels when I’m right by her side, my body pressed up next to hers, holding her close as the nightmare passes. She nuzzles her nose into my neck to find her way back to sleep. “You’re so warm,” she whispers. She has yet to find a full night of sleep in her beautiful bedroom down the hall during this pandemic year, and I wonder why I feel ashamed our not-yet-four-year-old can’t get through the night on her own. As emotional heirlooms go, children sleeping in the same bed as their parents has been around far longer than individual bedrooms. Maybe that is exactly as it should be.
The generation under the age of 10 is still being born and has yet to be named. It’s hard to know if this Unnamed Generation (which some are already calling Generation C for COVID-19) will be the one that takes us deeper into the hyper-mediated world of life on the internet, or if they will become the standard bearer for a new Luddite culture that encourages people to put down their phones, for good. As a society, we’ll make choices over the coming months and years that will change the status quo. How we work, how we connect with friends, and how we spend time with our families will all be reshaped by this pandemic. Our individual choices will be the threads from which our collective culture is rewoven. When my daughter emerges into a fit of tears over being separated from her beloved YouTube community, I will do my best to remind her with a big, long hug—she, and we, are going to be okay.
This month, our Bonding Lead Ira Hillman explores the troubling impact of the pandemic on new mothers and small children. Itai Dinour, our Bridging Lead, shares a reflection on the importance of service-learning, highlighting a recent panel discussion on Cornell University’s commitment to public engagement. We’ve compiled resources for everyone from community leaders to parents to adolescents. We’re empathizing with those mourning the high school rituals interrupted by COVID-19, listening to young people explain the importance of mattering, and taking time to reflect on how to address hate-based violence in America which we were painfully reminded this past week is something we cannot ignore. Perhaps paradoxically, we’re also basking in the world’s natural wonders and leaning into the vital importance of human connection. We know that the best way through is together. With deepest gratitude for the much-needed warmth and sunshine of the coming spring.
Jenn Hoos Rothberg