Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Screen (Scream?) Time

I want to talk about screens--all kinds of screens. I recently wrote something about the fact that one's prosperity was measured by how many screens they had in the house. The second the ink had dried (or rather, the moment that last key had been tapped) I began to feel sick in the stomach. I started a mental inventory of my own home--counting televisions, computers, IPod Nanos, Nintendo DS's, IPod Touches, cell phones and our very newest edition, my Kindle. (I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that former generation Shuffles had no screen.) This task took quite awhile and I'm not prepared to reveal the number I reached. I will admit that it led to a lot of soul-searching questions: How did I get here? What did it say about me, my family and modern times in general?

The media inundates us with updated research on the effect of the time we spend before a screen. The issue of how much we're all benefitting from modern innovation or, alternatively, how detrimental it might be to our society, is a hot one. Most germane to me, as a mother of three children, is the effect of all of this technology on developing minds—specifically the three under my roof. A recent article in the New York Times, "Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction," brought to my attention by a good friend who understands my general concerns, specifically addresses the effect of electronic multitasking on teenagers. It warns that the ability to do so many things at once: having a conversation with one person, speaking on the phone with another one, sending a text message, setting up an appointment, listening to music, checking one’s email and taking a picture, ostensibly useful things if taken one by one, has made us—surprise, surprise--jittery. Formerly calm individuals are skittering toward hyperactivity. I do not discount this theory. Beyond accounting for any given hour of my own day, taking care of so many things at once that I can't get to the end of a conversation without forgetting what I was talking about at the start, it offers an explanation for my own efforts within that modern behemoth of amateur athleticism: triathlon. Although I have always loved sports, exercising most every day of my life, my gradual turn from an invigorating fast walk to the almost daily flirtation with a serious build up of lactic acid (whether in the middle of the sea or along a biking trail miles from home) surely indicates the search for overload. 

No leap of imagination is needed to realize that my own frantic existence resembles that of modern-day teenagers. A recent discussion I had with a child psychologist who specializes in providing evaluations assessing attention deficiencies centered on how contemporary children have almost no chance of successfully negotiating the conditions within the traditional classroom. Used to being flooded with an extraordinary number of outside stimuli, they understandably go numb when seated before a single teacher standing in front of a white board. The teacher’s efforts to enliven the lecture with colorful markers and theatrical voice changes will only go so far in holding their attention. On the other hand, if this same teacher were to introduce a computer into the room and illustrate her topic with a lecture via Power Point, the kids might actually sit up and listen. Photographic images (or even cinematic ones), replacing rough sketches, and audio-animation, replacing a monotone drone, could far better bring just about any topic to life. Better yet, if you were able to bring a screen to every child, so that he could actually control this display himself, with the mouse, then presto—we could actually achieve-- Education! Of course the irony lies in the fact that technology more suited to a "wired" population, is simply replacing the original model for multitasking: sitting in a room with friends, listening to a teacher, looking at the board, thinking about what’s being said and taking notes! 

Our ability to upgrade our children's learning experience through the introduction of electronics into the classroom doesn't answer the concerns regarding its overall effect on their behavior. Attempting to analyze the effects of this modern monster on my own children, I considered the parallel evils of my generation. Matt Richtel's article sheds much light on this question by comparing the effect of watching television with that of playing video games. I eagerly followed this part of his article as it well pertained to the experience of late baby boomers such as me--and lo and behold, the research conducted proved that watching television was now considered a fairly benign activity. I had been vindicated! I no longer had to worry about those hours spent plastered in front of the television screen as a child. Early morning, late afternoon, throughout the weekend, I'd be found sitting on the floor of our Sun Room, planted directly in front of the set (later we figured that I needed glasses!) with a dish of cookies, a glass of milk, and whatever faithful dog happened to be with us at the time. I was drawn into the world of outer space, flying dogs and tropical paradises such as those represented in such children's classics as the Jetsons, Underdog and Gilligan's Island (the original). And lest we assume this to have been a passing fancy, I can attest to the fact that I entered adolescence debating whether modeling myself after the feisty Marsha Brady or the exotic Jeannie who popped out of the bottle would win me Keith Partridge.

Of course watching television back then didn't seem to be all that detrimental to my development. First of all, it was only one of the many activities in my life. I also read books, a lot of them, kept a journal (with a solid lock!) and wrote letters (actually put pen to paper) to my friends from camp. The variety of these activities somehow balanced that time spent glued to the screen. Additionally, it could be said that watching TV was a family activity. Every Saturday night we had a big steak dinner and gathered to watch All in the Family—laughing at Archie Bunker's boorish behavior--and then Mary Tyler Moore—our model for the giddy woman making it on her own. Television wasn't a bad thing! It actually brought us all together!

When my first born began to watch videos, seated in front of the screen with a pacifier in mouth, and a slightly glazed look in his eyes, I welcomed his entry into the colorful world of Sesame Street and Barney the dinosaur. I assured myself that at least he'd improve his English! How wonderful! Television is educational! And beyond being educational, it apparently does little to ruin a good night's sleep (a major seller for a parent with three kids). Richtel’s research on the different effect of television and computer time before bed clearly indicates that while an hour of television will not disturb one's sleep (albeit if you're watching the Exorcist or the Saw), playing video games before bed can severely disrupt sleep patterns. And obviously, once a teenager knows what kind of colorful, viscerally provocative world awaits him within the screen, there's far more incentive to cut that restless night's sleep short and get right to it early in the morning. Something so maligned (especially these days when there is almost nothing to watch) has, again, come out ahead!

So assuming that I had it all right, how did it go so wrong? A typical Saturday morning will find both of my boys behind closed doors (usually not the same ones) playing one game or another, my daughter on Facebook chatting with a friend (this is now considered social interaction) and myself huddled in front of the laptop in the kitchen. I confess great admiration for my husband who, at the very same time, is outside—in Nature--either battling our garden or playing golf. If he does wander in to seek a conversation, no one is available. The only form of communication between us is the occasional comment in a raised tone (it has to cross both distance and wood) that comes out more like a belch than a sentence. Although my sons and I can claim that having woken up early for an invigorating two hour bike ride we have earned the right to disconnect, I’m not convinced.

Obviously the unremitting development of media and technology has somehow spiraled out of control and the world of screens, within which we're all submerged, has created a generation of non-communicative, jumpy shut-ins!! The splitting of that one family screen that had played such a pivotal role in bringing us all together, into many smaller ones, and its assumption of interactive abilities (think: IPAD), has simply been the nail in the coffin of social interaction. With such a variety of innovative screens at our beck and call, an entire population can retreat to its own private corner, effectively halting all communication. In the context of this daily challenge to modern parenting, I actually celebrated when, just last week, I found my son watching a marathon of Spiderman movies on television. He had left his room! The television had saved him!  


  1. I've harbored many of the same thoughts. For example, since before computers became ubiquitous, as a trial lawyer, I've always believed that the best way to awaken a jury and get them to take notice of evidence is to show it on a screen.

    I do, however, take issue with your jabs at the computer as a means of communication -- i.e., characterizing us screen-wielding troglodytes as "non-communicative" and denigrating facebook as a tool of "social interaction." I believe the internet has enhanced our communications in joyous ways we could have never anticipated in our younger days. Exhibit A: my friend Caroline is my "good friend," not my "old friend" who moved a million miles away, and I wonder what she's up to these days. Not only are we connected in 2010, but here she is now, blogging deep and provocative thoughts, yet when we're face-to-face over a beer, it's unlikely we'd ever get past reminiscing about Color War and trips to Beltsville or yammering about our kids. Indeed, I would think an expatriate, more than anybody I know, would be more inclined to celebrate rather than lament electronic connectivity, in all its forms. Besides, not to horrify you, but k'vetching about new technology is the next step in turning into our parents. Our kids communicate in different ways; get used to it. But crikey, they communicate more often and I believe more intimately then we ever did. The computer has done for their youth what the telephone (as well as the television) did for ours.

    The bigger issue in our electronic mediascape, I believe, is privacy. This is the Brave New World we need to adjust to, not just enjoy. This has come to the fore this week with the Wikileaks story. What I believe to be a positive explosion in the volume and quality of communication also marks the death of private communication. This isn't to judge. I don't suggest that the loss of privacy is all bad, or even net bad -- the whole Wikileaks kerfuffle makes for a fascinating debate -- just revolutionary.

    The ease of communication is like running. It feels good and seems to be good for you. The loss of privacy is the impact. It may give you a healthy heart ... and a knee replacement.

    You may now return to your regularly scheduled blogging ...

  2. Who is Howard? I like Howard, and concur with his comments. When I was a young woman, at Penn and then married and living in Philadelphia, the most frequent contact with my parents in Charleston was by telephone contact. And the calls most often came when I was too busy to speak with them.

    Hurrah for the internet -- with my daughter living 6,000 miles away.

  3. It is all well and good for these educated, successful adults to bless the values of the internet, tv, iphone etc. for communicating with people and friends, for entertainment and information etc. But what about the children who have quite literally become addicted to these devices. I wish you could have been with us at the Speaker Series the other night. The speaker was Dr. Ben Carson, prominent neuropediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. This famous doctor, recognized the world over for his ability to separate Siamese twins and other acts of operating derring do, grew up poor, black and dumb until his mother turned off the TV and required his to read two books a week and report to her. Carson went on to Yale and a future that earned him the Medal Of Honor -- the highest award that can be given to a civilian.

  4. It's the classic giveth & taketh away thing: sometimes so much too much; other times, like the friend 6000 miles away, the saving grace.

    And for a writer? So helpful in countless ways.

    Yet... overload/overwhelm as we all are too reliant upon the screen(s) plural.