Second-hand screens are the second-hand smoke of modern parenting

If you’re reading this on your tablet while at your child’s soccer game, please put it down. You’re setting an ill-mannered example, and one that’s becoming an all-too-frequent sight in our communities. 
I was recently at dinner with my wife and noticed a couple sitting nearby; both were staring into their smartphones, seemingly oblivious to the evening’s ambiance … and to each other. It was sad.
Before that I saw a group of teenagers standing together at a nearby open-air mall; rather than talking they were all texting. It was perplexing.
More disturbing is how frequently I see elementary school-aged kids tapping away on their tablets when they could be experiencing the world around them. Rather than playing or watching sports, taking-in a performance, enjoying the outdoors, or simply developing an attention span, many children are being mollified with devices. “Leave me alone, kid,” seems the message.  
None of my business, I suppose. You certainly have a right to gaze into those little glowing screens all you want, and allow your children to, as well. But what about when that right intrudes on the activity of others?
This is when good manners are needed.
It’s can be frustrating when parents allow their young children to bring tablets and smartphones to events where their devices become the center of attention, forcing other parents to place the real world into a hopeless competition with flashy electronic games they themselves chose not to bring.
What’s the big deal? Well, here are three recent examples of the challenge “second hand screens” bring to modern parenting:
While at a baseball game with my son, an entire little league team was sitting below us with their parents. Two players brought tablets, so most of the team played or watched video games the entire time. Some aggravated parents tried to get their kids to watch the baseball game, but how can a pitcher working out a fastball compete with the Hulk smashing everything?
At a recent children’s play, a parent allowed her toddler to play games on a tablet throughout the performance. By the end of the evening, the children in the row behind them hadn’t seen much of the show. They paid far more attention to the flashy screen in their line of sight.
And then there was the youth campout aboard the USS Alabama. A couple of the boys brought tablets, so eventually the group sat huddled together taking turns playing some sort of video game. “Boys,” I said. “You’re on a battleship – passageways, ladders, guns, canons – put down those games and go explore.”
The parents who supplied the tablets in all three examples seemed blissfully unaware of the distraction they caused. Meanwhile, other parents fumed.
On one hand, I can sympathize. Nobody likes being the uncool parent who won’t let their kids bring along their favorite devices. And as the father of five, I know how challenging it can be to bring small children to certain events. But on the other hand, we’re parents, and part of our job is teaching our children how to behave in public, how to set aside distractions and pay attention to something or to someone, and how to not interrupt the activity of others, especially in a group setting.
Giving a smartphone or tablet to your child may help you enjoy an event in peace, but it will likely distract other kids, and letting your kids bring electronics to outdoor events may defeat the very purpose that most other families are trying to achieve there.
So what should we do?
As with anything new, our society must adopt new standards of appropriate behavior. The previous generations had to learn proper telephone manners, and then all about second-hand smoke, for instance.
At one theater in Birmingham, ushers shine blinking lights on those who continue to use their devices during performances. That’s a good start. Elsewhere, coaches and event organizers could establish “screen free” policies before certain gatherings or events so everyone knows what to expect.

Whatever the approach, modern parents need to become aware that “second hand screens” are becoming a real nuisance to parents who are just trying to help our kids unplug and enjoy real life.
(First published on