Addicted To E-Mail

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

My husband accused me of being addicted to my e-mail account this week.

Like the beginnings of all good marital spats, I immediately denied the allegation.

“I check my e-mail probably four times a day, for about five minutes each time,” I wrote to him — in an e-mail. “That’s hardly an addiction.”

But that nagging voice inside me worried that maybe he was right. In the course of two days, I noticed that my daughter repeatedly came over while I was on the computer and tugged on my sleeve to play with her. While reading a story to my boys I heard the tell-tale click as my inbox received an e-mail. “Hold on a sec,” I told the boys. Was the computer interfering with my job as a mother? Was I, in fact, addicted?

“You might not be addicted, but I am,” a friend of mine with two children said when I raised the issue.”I wake up and before I even have coffee, I check my e-mail. I Google people I went to high school with. I shop on BlueFly. I check out what’s for sale at J. Crew. I order books and CDs I don’t really need. I never leave home without my BlackBerry. I’m on that thing all the time. You know, they don’t call it the CrackBerry for nothing,” she added.

Apparently she isn’t the only one being sucked into the black hole of cyberspace.

At an informal gathering of six mothers and their children in my daughter’s preschool class, I felt like a fish out of water without a handheld device. At some point every single mother there was checking her e-mail. The children were happily playing with each other and didn’t even seem to notice that their mothers were otherwise occupied.

At a board meeting I attended last week, several of the board members were paying more attention to their handheld devices than they were to the discussion, which was, admittedly, painfully boring. But both scenarios made me wonder about the message we’re sending to our children and colleagues.

I often justify the minutes spent in front of the computer as saving time that otherwise might be spent on the telephone or running errands. Need to make a playdate? A couple e-mails later, it’s done. Want to sign up for Mommy and Me classes? Go online and see the different offerings. Need to order school supplies? Groceries? Books? Shin guards? Boots? Uniforms? Go online.

But how much time was I really spending in front of the computer? How can I effectively limit my children’s screen time if I’m not managing my own? Am I multitasking in the presence of my children instead of dedicating chunks of undivided time to playing and reading and eating with them?

I decided that, regardless of whether or not I was addicted, I needed to monitor exactly what it was I was doing — this column aside — when I was sitting in front of the computer. And since I had, of course, completely made up the amount of time I told my husband that I spend online — could it really be only 20 minutes a day, or was it more like 20 minutes three times a day? — I decided to try to limit myself to match my story.

It wasn’t easy.

Firstly, instead of just deleting all the junk mail in my inbox, I took the extra second and reported them as spam. Now I am no longer tempted to view this season’s skinny jeans being proffered by Bloomingdales. It isn’t as if I can’t type in when I really feel the need.

Then I made a pact with myself to limit my Google searches to those that were entirely necessary. Do I really need to know if there’s a movie version of “Wicked” for my children to watch? Do I really need to fact-check the friend who confidently told me that evangelical families have an average of 3.2 children, almost two more than most liberal Americans? Has a favorite author of mine, Nathaniel Philbrick, disclosed the subject of his next book?

I have no idea, of course, since I didn’t deem those searches essential.

I also decided to stop being connected online continuously during the day. Since I no longer hear the click that signals an incoming e-mail, I am able to limit the number of times I check my email. Four times a day is not a problem. (Keeping it to five minutes, though, is another story.)

Regardless of whether my husband is right, which — and this is very hard for me — he probably is, the issue isn’t really whether I’m addicted to my computer the way I’m addicted to, say, caffeine. The issue is the kind of behavior that I am modeling for my children. And as of this column, I’ve decided that it’s time to kick the habit. Sort of.

The New York Sun

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