Rough Ride Over the Digital Rainbow
I opened the bedroom door, and there she was—my thirteen-year-old daughter and once rising literary star, lounging in bed on a Saturday afternoon, scrolling YouTube.
“You’ve been on your phone all day,” I said. “Don’t you have something better to do? Draw, read, write?”
Sage shrugged. “No.”
This recurring scenario was turning into the parent’s version of Groundhog Day, and my patience was wearing thin. I approached Sage’s bed and begged. “Why don’t we go … for a walk, play chess, do homework … something?”
“No, thanks,” Sage said, continuing to scroll. “I’m good here.”
What happened to my little girl? The creativity? The humor? The spark?
Who was this imposter who had taken over her body, given her a training bra and a bad attitude?
According to a recent New York Times article, “The Phone in the Room,” adolescents now spend more than half their waking hours on their devices. Sage, in my opinion, was too talented to become like millions of teen-zombies out there.
My daughter was supposed to write the next generation of stories. Sing. Dance. Draw. Show the world there is more to life than … staring at a screen.
Something in me snapped. I snatched Sage’s phone.
“You’ll get it back when you prove you can be a productive member of society!” I hollered, running into my bedroom, locking the door.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked, lounging in bed, scrolling on her phone.
“Something I should have done long ago!”
As Sage banged on the door and yelled, I hid her phone in my sock drawer.
“This ought to end well,” my wife concluded.
When Sage was three, her mother and I separated.
They were difficult years, but regardless of how hard it was on us, I used to tell her a bedtime story every Saturday night she stayed with me.
While I was the original storyteller of our duo, Sage quickly started to chime in with her own voice, turning these stories I improvised at bedtime into her own adventures. We had so much fun making up fantastic tales about a mythical creature discovered on a hike (“Unicorns Are Real”), a witch spying on kids at the park (“The Valentine’s Day Surprise”), a ghost seeking treats at camp (“S’more Boy Returns”), that we often spent Sunday mornings writing, revising, and posting them on a blog.
Our collection of 28 tales found at Not Your Father’s Bedtime Stores began when Sage was six. Her first professional writing credit, “Psychopath Strawberry,” in which a mad scientist’s efforts to spread a toxic ice cream are thwarted by a little girl, was published in Spaceports and Spidersilk when she was ten. Her twenty-page chapbook, The Last Shimmer, in which two friends must struggle with their shadows to save themselves and their loved ones, was published when she was 11. For her first decade on Earth, Sage made a lot of illustrations (punk rock Simpsons), figurines (Baby Yoda), and music (her song, “A Tree is Life,” can be heard online). She recently co-wrote and co-starred in the commercial we produced for my story, “Bob’s Pest Control.”
My daughter’s artistic endeavors have been a force of nature as well as nurture. As an only child, she often has had to entertain herself after school and on weekends.
Sage also didn’t have a phone until sixth grade. That was the year she started middle school, during the pandemic. She had no way of getting to know the students she saw caged, like her, within a grid of gallery tiles in a Zoom classroom. We knew a lot of her classmates played online video games. Thinking it would be an opportunity for Sage to socialize, we bought her a phone.
It was the beginning of the end: the beginning of Sage’s social life, thankfully, but the end of her artistic boon. In proportion to every dolphin that she earned as a pet in Roblox, she produced one less poem, song, or picture in real life.
My writing partner dissolved her creativity contract with Team Hyatt and retired early into her bedroom. I mourned the loss of my little girl as I tried to cope with the moody, withdrawn teen who had taken her place.
At dinner, I explained to Sage my concerns about her over-reliance on tech for entertainment. I showed her studies on the impact electronics have on teenage sleep cycles, the bizarre physiological addiction, anxiety, and depression scrolling for hours does to a developing brain, and the harmful effects of social media on female self-esteem.
“Basically, these are the years to be using or losing your mind,” I said. “I want to you to be happy and make art again.”
“I hear you, Dad,” she said, “and I beat you to it. Why don’t you go check your drawer?”
I put down my fork, marched into my bedroom. Sage’s phone was gone. In its place, nestled on top of my rolled-up socks, was a drawing of my teen daughter flipping me off.
I returned to the living room with the drawing.
“What do you think of my art?” she asked.
“Are you happy with it?”
“I am,” she said. “Are you, Dad?”
“It’s actually pretty good …”
The pandemic passed (kind of), school resumed in person, but Sage’s phone never went away. It was so nice to see her enjoying the ups and downs of middle school, not vicariously as some character in one of her stories, but in real life as the starring protagonist. She made friends and participated with them in physical activities after school beyond the scope of cyberspace: trips to the beach, mall, birthday parties, sleepovers. Sure, she wasn’t writing War and Peace, but she was happy. And I was happy for her.
Sage agreed that there needed to be some regulation with electronics, for her own sake, so she decided to read or draw in the evenings, before she went to sleep, and in the mornings when she woke. I thought she might have been trying to appease me with this agreement, but it turns out she really does love art and just needed her own justification to make time for it again.
On a recent Saturday, I knocked on her door, walked into her room, and I found her playing Roblox on her Kindle while listening to a YouTube drawing tutorial on her phone and creating a very cool series of colorful, humanoid creatures with her art pad and drawing pens.
She also started a YouTube channel, creating fanfiction video clips for Roblox and Owl House, her favorite TV show.
Do I wish Sage was posting videos of her own animated characters? Yes. And in time, maybe she will. But the fact is, her video clips are creating a following, more so than the years I’ve spent pining away as a writer piggybacking off no one.
She’s revisiting her artistic impulses in her own way, and on her own terms.
I’m proud of her. I’m also impressed. Sage showed me what she’s been working on lately, and it made me laugh. Her video clips are funny. It’s easy to see the talent behind the templates, thoughtful shorts with a compelling narrative.
A storyteller, after all.
*Feature image by Cristina Conti