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Has Technology Turned Me Into the Paranoid Dad From Footloose?

A father confronts his fears over his daughter’s addiction to screens

Eyes in mirror
Paul Spella

Remember that scene in Footloose where Reverend Moore, played by an uber-earnest John Lithgow, explains to his daughter why he’s pushed so hard to ban dancing? “You know I can't always be with you,” he says. “I can't always look out for you.” That’s the pure chop of helicopter parenting, and something I laughed at — until I became a father.

A few years ago, I heard myself echoing his unreasonable paranoia. In Footloose, the gateway evil was dance. For me, as with many contemporary parents, it’s screens.

“Enough!” I exclaimed after catching my teenage daughter staring at her smartphone for what seemed like the entire day. “You’re turning your brain to putty!” I confiscated the device, locked it in my desk for the rest of the day, and reveled in my self-righteousness.

I officially went into overkill mode one afternoon while she was sitting quietly on the couch with an iPad. She had a soft grin on her face that, to me, was more alarming than endearing. 

“OK, take a break and read a book,” I said, abruptly taking the device from her hands.  

“I am reading, genius,” she snapped back. “Books are digital now!” 

I wouldn’t have it, and I definitely wouldn’t tolerate anything that incited that kind of attitude. “No screens for a week!” I proclaimed. 

If you crunch the numbers, she’s not on a screen much more than I was as a kid, if you count Blockbuster nights, Saturday cartoons and untold after-school specials. But what bugs me is the insularity of it. Turning on the TV in the ’80s was conspicuous. You were in the center of the home, and everyone knew what you were watching or playing. Today, kids disappear behind their screens; it’s a truly solitary pursuit.

The occasional tech ban wasn’t working — when I returned her devices, she just peered at them more hungrily, like a drunk falling off the wagon. So I tried a different tactic: talking.

I asked her what she was watching and reading. Not accusatorily. With genuine curiosity. She was flattered that I cared and happily shared funny video clips, recommended cool songs, and summarized group chats with school friends. 

It wasn’t enough to convince me. (Kids lie, after all.) So one night, in a puritanical fit, I checked her phone history as she slept. I expected the worst — introductions to satanic rituals, how-tos on 3D gun printing and a universe of pornography — but instead, I found a bread-crumb trail that was wholesome if not downright nerdy. She was reading Harry Potter fan fiction, having deep discussions about the fantasy novel series Wings of Fire and watching dozens of cooking and baking videos. 

That last one made me realize how little I actually knew about her online life. I had no idea that her shepherd’s pie recipe, which has already become a weeknight mainstay in our house, was something she learned from the TikTok account Quincy’s Tavern.

The Reverend Moore was certain dancing was the gateway to fornicating; I was positive today’s tech meant an in-box full of dick pics. We were both wrong. I can still relate to that fear of the unknown, but I’ve learned my daughter doesn’t need me to protect her. The internet is giving her access to ideas and discoveries I could never have imagined at that age.

Sure, some of it is concerning, but so much of it is really cool. The key, for me, is not locking down the gizmos. It’s about understanding her interests and helping her make good decisions about how she spends her time.

If that ever feels out of whack, putting screens on the shelf will be step one. Until then, I’ll enjoy the shepherd’s pie.

[This month, AARP is launching an initiative that focuses on the challenges of teens in 2022, with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, and a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20th, hosted by Arrow editor-in-chief Stephen Perrine. For more stories, advice, and insights, and to join us for this important and informative round table, please register today.]