For those who haven’t yet seen Hulu’s dramatic series Fleishman Is in Trouble, it’s really about the different forms of existential crises people face in middle age. The show contemplates the challenges of maintaining a marriage, parenting in the digital age, job dissatisfaction, and suburban listlessness, and how a responsible adult might reconcile these dilemmas and chart a new course forward. It manages to explore these weighty themes with earnestness and humor and without sounding too pedantic–that’s the magic elixir that captures your attention and holds it nicely in place. The life of Dr. Fleishman, a 41-year-old recently divorced hepatologist living in New York City, is the fulcrum around which all of these conversations turn.
Despite the fact that I do not have children of my own, I found many of the scenes that emphasized the challenges of parenting and the regulation of screen time to be among the most compelling. The brunt of this article will focus on these particular themes.
For instance, when Fleishman’s 11-year-old daughter first asks him for an iPhone and permission to use Instagram, he flat-out refuses. Even though his soon-to-be ex-wife plays devil’s advocate and suggests a more relaxed, mainstream approach — so that their kids will “fit in” — he won’t relent. He insists on shielding her from the perils of digital addiction and the corruptive influence of social media.
This dialogue between Fleischmann and his daughter struck me as such a salient part of the show because I consider myself a bit of a digital junkie. Even though I grew up without smartphones, I often feel like my brain has been hijacked, like I’m nothing more than a rat suckling at the teat of a dopamine dispenser.
So the show begs the question: What is a responsible parent supposed to do? It’s obviously such a complex question with a million different variables and no clear-cut right or wrong answers. Are tablets after school OK? To help with homework assignments? What about giving a 9-year-old a smartphone in case of an emergency? Single moms that work two jobs may have a different perspective than a co-parent household that works remotely.
Because the show’s main character is a physician, it seems to pose a similar question to the medical community. Is it incumbent upon us to better inform parents about the influence of digital media? (The American Academy of Pediatrics issued an extensive report in 2016 entitled, Children and Adolescents and Digital Media which is chock-full of evidence-based information for those interested in the subject.)
While the writer of Fleishman, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, gives some hints about her digital politics she doesn’t reveal too much or oversimplify the conversation. She seems to advise parents to tread cautiously and avoid hypocrisy. This becomes evident when Fleischmann first dips his toe into New York’s online dating pool. As his distraction demonstrates, being a positive, digital role model is not easy.
Perhaps the scene that best demonstrates the complexity of parenting in the digital age is when Fleishman receives a call to pick up his daughter from a sleep-away camp. Much to his dismay, the camp is forced to dismiss her after discovering a lewd text she sent to another camper (from a phone he eventually caved in and bought for her). The scene highlights the tough call parents often have to make: Should they provide access to a phone while a child is away from home and knowingly expose an immature mind to such a powerful tool?
The good news for viewers is that Fleishman does leave them on more solid ground about parenting in general. He reminds us that there are still core objective ingredients to the job; patience, empathy, encouragement, and fierce protection. It’s about finding the right balance between knowing when to dole out some tough love and when to be more flexible and open-minded. No matter how the digital landscape continues to evolve, those key principles are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Eric Dessner is an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn, NY, and can be reached on Twitter @eric_dessner. He is founder and CEO, Medmic.