Since my daughter Lucia was an infant I have worried about screen time. She didn't get any until she was two-years-old. I've carried a screen time worry around with me for her sixteen years of life like a satchel of rocks on my back. As a mother of teenager in Corona I have had to loosen the reigns more than ever before. I can see that her phone is her primary way to stay connected to the outside world, and to herself.
In the absence of the physical presence of her peers, her phone-- FaceTime, SnapChat, Instagram are all she has to actually feel connected to her people. But the worry is always there for me. It's like a pilot light in my chest, just a slight flutter of panic, ready to ignite at any moment. Nothing significant with Lucia and her phone needs to happen. She doesn't have to be cyber-bullied or be caught sexting. Just thinking about how her relationship with her phone might be hindering or degrading her cognitive and emotional development can ignite my little pilot light into a mini bonfire in my chest, engulfing my entire torso. As the inferno blazes, all rational thought stops and I become desperate to save her. I feel compelled to make a new rule or give a compelling lecture or share a fear inducing real-life story about cell phone addiction and college drop out rates.
Sometimes I follow the panic and subject Lucia to a verbal tirade, but lately I've been able to hold my tongue. I've thought about how right now her phone is her survival tool. It is helping her communicate with her friends, with the world that is important to her-- TickTock, fashion, recipes, make up. She can see what her friends are doing and she can share pieces of herself, pieces that need to be seen for her to feel alive, connected, and nourished as a teenager.
The image of trees in a forest comes to me. They are rooted in place, yet they communicate through mushrooms-- called the mycorrhizal network. The trees share water and nutrients through the roots of mushrooms. The saplings, unable to reach the sun, benefit from the older, taller, more well-established trees who share their bounty with the little ones. These older trees, called Mother Trees, have deeper roots and the strongest fungal connections. They use these connections to sense distress in the saplings and help send water and other nutrients when they are in need. It's even been discovered that Mother Trees can detect the roots of their relatives and direct nutrients specifically to them.
Scientist Peter Wohlleben coined this network of mushroom roots the wood wide web. Trees depend on this web of information to survive. Right now, we are depending on our electronic devices to connect, to survive. My entire household uses the screen to work, do school, talk to family and friends, do exercise classes, have social gatherings. Lucia and I are not that different. She is surviving. Just like me, just like my partner Nancy. Just like all of my family and friends.
Her network, her wood wide web, looks different from mine. She has social media and a focus on things that are relevant to a sixteen-year-old. I have work and writing and keeping up with my mother and siblings. We are each surviving in our way, using the network to serve us. And I am the Mother Tree. If I listen, I can sense when she is in distress and give her nutrients. For sixteen years my worry bag of rocks, the little pilot light in my chest, has told me to clamp down, do something, control it.
But my Mother Tree instincts, my deeper roots, tell me that this isn't what will nourish Lucia right now. What she needs is sunlight, connection. Just like me, just like all of us. When I think about what the opposite of worry is for me, the feeling that snuffs out the pilot light, it is celebration. Instead of stewing in worry I can find ways to celebrate Lucia-- for the creative cooking ideas she gets from her magic phone, for the new clothing styles she comes up with and puts together, for her interest in getting a job, for figuring out how the hell to do school through a laptop day after day.
I don't know if replacing worry with celebration will extinguish my internal pilot light completely, but I know it will help. When I close my eyes and imagine myself as a Mother Tree, crown rising up into the sky, roots spreading out and down, syncing up with a mysterious mycorrhizal network, I feel a sense of calm, power, and connection.
I ache to change the isolation we are all experiencing, especially for my little sapling Lucia. But I don't want my pilot light of worry to engulf her. That would make her life more difficult and isolated than it already is.
Lucia and all of her friends are like trees in the forest, standing alone, unable to come together. They are building their wood wide web, establishing roots to connect to their growing mycorrhizal networks. Lucia is surviving with her phone, her laptop, her apps, connecting in ways that nourish and sustain her. And I, as the Mother Tree, am soaking up what sunlight is available, tapping into my deep roots, and listening for signs of distress. As the stronger, older, more deeply rooted and connected tree, my job is to listen to Lucia's signals and nourish her with what she needs until she can survive on her own.