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‘How I Met Your Mother’ Creator Carter Bays on Why His Family Embraces Screen Time

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My wife and I keep our kids off screens. Screens, in our house, are for special occasions, like flights, or long car rides, or weekends, or holidays, or weekdays, or anytime I need our children to stop constantly asking me if they can use their screens so I can get a minute to play on my iPhone.

OK, fine. We let them have screens. I know, I’ve read all the articles, and I understand that this is their generation’s lead paint or Barbie Dream Kitchen – the thing you’re not supposed to give them or it will screw them up forever. Even Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids play with iPads, or so the apocrypha goes. When my kids ask for their iPads, I know what I’m supposed to say and I do, as often as I can: Screens are bad, I say. Go outside and play in the real world.

But I know I’m lying. Because, in 2022, what even is the real world? If my kids want to participate in civilization in the 21st century, their lives — the lives I’m charged with overseeing and equipping with wisdom for at least their first 18 years — will, for the most part, be lived on screens.

I know this because, for the most part, my life has been lived there too. I don’t just mean my early years of Saturday morning cartoons, and hours spent solving Super Mario Brothers and The Legend Of Zelda. And I don’t even mean my professional life, as a writer staring at various blinking cursors on various laptops, or as a television producer staring at various monitors in various sound stages and edit rooms. I’m talking about the big stuff, the real stuff. I’m talking about love.

The first time I saw my wife’s face was on Facebook. I was procrastinating, scrolling through pictures of my friends’ friends and there she was. It was a profile picture she doesn’t use anymore, and hasn’t used for a long time, but it’s burned into my retinae because that’s the version of her that first got my attention. Her eyes, her smile, the way her head was tilted just so – so cheerful, enthusiastic, intelligent, vivacious – I’ll never forget it. All the silly cliches of love at first sight apply to me and that JPEG.

The night my wife and I finally met in person, and I spent an hour or so sitting across from an actual human being with an actual three-dimensional face, the real thing was undeniably better than the facsimile. But then the real thing gave me a polite hug at the valet stand, got in her car and drove away, leaving me alone with the picture once more. Our conversation from dinner continued over text messages, and with each passing day, I fell more and more in love with these words and this picture and this memory of the face glowing behind candlelight at dinner, all stitched together in my head.

A few years later, the writing staff of my TV show, How I Met Your Mother, went on its annual work retreat to Las Vegas. My wife stayed home, but my younger sister Abby, who worked on the show with me, came along. Late one afternoon, as Abby and I walked from the pool to the hotel elevator, we had a conversation – or rather, we had one side of a conversation. Really, it was just Abby talking, telling me either some story about her love life or some juicy bit of office gossip. I’m sure it was something interesting, because Abby’s stories are always interesting, but I have no way of knowing, because I wasn’t listening. I walked beside her with my face in my phone, nodding occasionally. Finally, when she could no longer stand the feeling of talking to taxidermy, she paused her story and gave me a scolding.

“Hey. Dude. Hello,” she said. “I’m right here. Talking to you.”

I looked up. “Sorry,” I said.

She said it was fine, but with a big eye-roll. She was annoyed, and I don’t blame her. She had good reason to assume whatever she had to say was way more important than whatever nonsense I had going on in my phone.

Except the nonsense going on in my phone was an email from my wife. The subject line read: “Are you sitting down?” I wasn’t, but I read it anyway. There was no message, just an attachment: a photo of a positive pregnancy test.

Inside my phone, my life changed forever.

Out there in the “real” world my sister kept talking. Inside my phone, my life changed forever.

Not long after that, I saw my daughter for the first time, and once again, it was on a screen. The sonographer put the goop on the little wand, rubbed it over my wife’s belly, and there was our girl, tucked into her little nook, squirming with wild energy. This was a 3D Ultrasound – the IMAX of prenatal imaging – so it wasn’t just an indistinct head and some little wiggly arms and legs. For the first time, I saw her face, and she smiled, and for the second time in my life, love at first sight was pixelated.

My daughter will never know the “before time.” When my generation is gone, nobody will. It happened gradually: I got my first cell phone in 1997, my first non-.edu email address in 1998, and in 1999 I illegally downloaded my first song. (“Steal My Sunshine” by LEN, and I have since paid full price for that track, officer.) But if you had to pinpoint exactly when the world tilted on its axis, you could do worse than the cleanliness of The Year 2000. On that cold New Year’s Eve, our hands all shook a little as we drank our champagne, terrified the computers would stop working and the world as we knew it would come to an end. I guess the big twist is that the world as we knew it did come to an end, and for one simple reason: the computers kept working.

Dutton

The Mutual Friend: A Novel

So now, when my wife and I occasionally make our kids go run around outside among the non-CGI trees and animals, I know it’s the right thing to do. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that if we completely cut them off from screens, we’re preparing them for a nice well-rounded life in the 20th century, while so much of the 21st century is happening in the connections being made inside their devices. My daughter is 10 now, and some of the funniest conversations we have happen over text, when she destroys me with a well-aimed gif or meme or silly picture of herself and her siblings. Sometimes she’ll just send me some hearts, and I’ll send some hearts back. When she gets older and life gets more complicated, these little messages will be what remains from this time in our lives – the transcript of her childhood and how we navigated it together. How can I ask her to turn that off and put it away?

I don’t want anything in this essay to be taken as parenting advice. There’s plenty of actual expertise out there on the dangers of too much screen time; you can find some of it here and here. No, this is simply a hesitating acknowledgement of how little we know of the world our children will inherit – a world they in many ways already inhabit.

These kids are at home here among the electrons, so maybe it’s time to stop worrying and embrace the screen. This wild galaxy of information swirling around inside our phones and iPads and laptops is a world as real to our kids as the world outside, and we should prepare them as such, because we’re not heading into the Matrix; we’re already there. And every time I load up that old ultrasound on my phone, and watch my daughter’s first smile all over again, I can’t help but think: There’s no place like home.


Carter Bays’ first book, The Mutual Friend, is now available from your favorite bookseller. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club — you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations.

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