Do we really know each other?
So often children’s screen time issues are thought of and discussed in the extreme. Just reading the articles above is enough to give some of us nightmares or at least stress-related headaches. But, kids’ tech lives, as designed by corporate entities for profit, are not always cut-and-dried terrible. However, most of the time, we see average kids – the ones who have friends, goals, and interests – experience instead a kind of impact creep. Even in past generations, the impact is often not realized or acknowledged until it’s too late.
One of my Action Network members, Peter, told a story this week that was familiar to me. He explained that in his house growing up, his family watched so much TV that they didn’t know each other. “We had our meals on TV tables watching Hogan’s Heroes,” he said, “when I had real life heroes, my parents, sitting right next to me. My dad was a WWII veteran and my mom an army nurse. I’m sure they had fascinating stories about their service and their travels. But, I never knew them like I could have.”
Screens can inhibit or deflect meaningful conversation and connection.
I was moved by Peter’s story. My dad earned a Bronze Star in World War II. He landed on Omaha Beach on the day after D-Day and was a sergeant beloved by his troops. Although my mom insisted on only one TV in the house so as to not divide the family (she was ahead of her peers at a time when there were typically no screen time rules), that “archaic” device still had the power to divide. My dad liked to watch baseball, which bored my mom. She would go do something else. My mom liked sequel dramas, which I learned to like myself. My brother and I had “our shows” that happened on one specific day and time. At least we watched together and discussed the characters and plot. But, to Peter’s point, we were discussing the lives of fictional characters rather than our own. With my father now gone, the lost opportunity saddens us both.
In her landmark text, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair explains it as “the tech effect.” She writes: “While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.”
I was recently looking at some videos of Thanksgivings past when I would host huge celebrations with lots of food, family, and fun. I observed my twin boys and their three cousins playing Legos in the 2002 video. They were laughing, throwing some at each other, building, and talking about what they were building. The following year it snowed. The cousins brought snow suits and headed outside with sleds. But, by 2004, we had a computer in the family room. This is where my trip down memory lane took a detour. I saw the five boys greet each other and head to the computer where their little faces burrowed quietly into Mario or Minecraft – I can’t tell which from the video. I was horrified at the juxtaposition. What are we really talking about here? Lost opportunity? Lost time? Lost relationships? We’re talking about an industry swooping in and gradually changing the course of lives.
Today’s lost opportunities can go much deeper than basic Minecraft-type games. Another member was talking about her son who had been video game addicted. We helped her find the right support program and he is doing well. But her comment to me about his recovery was revealing. “He doesn’t game anymore, but I don’t know what he does. I guess I don’t know him. So much of his growing up was in another world.”
I reflect on these simple, less horrifying narratives, so that we can connect the dots together. It’s simple changes, not major media plans, that can turn the tide back to family togetherness.
Researchers in Barcelona, Spain analyzed the frequency and duration of family meals, where they took place, the use of digital devices, the preparation of food, and the type of communication. They discovered that parents and caregivers believed sharing an evening meal without digital distractions created a space for socialization and communication. Healthier eating habits were also connected with the pleasant conversation with loved ones.
Whether it’s a device-free meal, taking a family walk in nature, or reading together (well into the children’s teen years), each time we simply set aside devices (including our own) we create an opportunity for true connection.