To my utter horror, I have been starting sentences this way.
The most recent was a fight with my 8.5 year-old who wanted to do homework research on the iPad, more specifically on Netflix. I balked. Though I’m sure he could have found any number of interesting, educational, and informative programs about supernovae (his research topic) on PBS and BBC and other acronymic channels, it seemed fundamentally wrong to me that he should be doing homework on the iPad. On Netflix. He had the typical 8.5 year-old sulk and I found myself launching into one of those moments:
“You know!” (It always begins with an exclamation point) “When I was young, I had to drag my butt to the library. Then I had to use the CARD CATALOG to find the book I needed (oh, Dewey Decimal, how you’ve fallen out of favor). The I actually had to READ the book and take NOTES. You don’t know how good you have it!”
And it’s true. Never has so much information been so readily available to a generation. And that ready availability has changed the way children learn, changed the way teachers teach, changed the way knowledge is gleaned and processed and disseminated. If knowledge is power than information is currency. But watching my kids stare google-eyed at an iPad, their still chubby little fingers flying over a touch screen, oblivious to calls to dinner, waiting until their bladders are full to bursting while they launch one more bird into orbit, that worries me.
Like most kids I know, my own children are limited in how much screen time they are allowed. And like most parents I know, these limits are stretched when we ‘need’ them to be. While you are cooking dinner, trying to have a conversation about life insurance, hung-over on a Saturday morning. Under normal circumstances, my children are not allowed electronics in restaurants, or before school, or right before bed. But hope springs eternal in the 5 to 9-year-old set. Even knowing the rules, they ask. And ask. And ask. And I will be the first to admit that I give in occasionally. Because it is EASY.
We own an iPad. And 3 working laptops, a television, an Apple TV box and enough cabling to wire most of Copenhagen. So I am not writing this preaching from lofty heights of virtuous virtual-freedom. I don’t think that Steve Jobs was the anti-Christ. But I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I worry the iPad may well be the downfall of civilization as we know it.
I am far from the first parent to fret about this. Studies about screen time and how they affect us have been hurrying and scurrying through the media since the advent of screens. Television, video consoles, computers, hand-held devices, iPhones, iPads. Parents who watched their children staring blankly at television sets and parents whose children came home with calloused thumbs after marathon Pac-Man sessions must have known that the times, they were a changin’. The devices are getting smaller in size, but their impact is only growing bigger. So what’s the difference?
Well, for one thing kids didn’t bring television sets into restaurants. Happy Days and The Brady Bunch and Saturday morning cartoons were limited to specific times. Arcade games were in arcades or at the roller rink. Yes, eventually they made their way to the living room, to rec rooms around the country, but again, they were limited to home. Then hand-held gaming devices made gaming portable. But the iPad, the iPad is different. Small enough to take with you, powerful enough to stay connected wherever you are, unobtrusive enough to slip under the radar, cute enough to place into the hands of our kids.
I see children on iPads at the dinner table, at the playground on a gorgeous sunny day, in the car, on the bus, at birthday parties, in bed. We (and I include myself here) are quick to slide to unlock when we need to slide and unwind. Don’t get me wrong. Technology is a wonderful thing. Technology allows my mother, who lives 4,000 miles away, to see her grandkids, not just hear them. I am in awe of parents who raised children before the advent of Google. (Did my mother actually go and look something up in the Encyclopedia Britanica every time we asked a question?) But I worry. I worry about that glassy gleam in my children’s eyes. I worry about the black hole that seems to suck them in and spit nothing out. I worry that they are losing out on the art of conversation. That they are so locked into looking down at a screen that they are slowly losing the ability to look someone in the eye. That more and more they are living in a virtual world of bytes and characters, Matrix like, and are losing the social skills that until very recently, dictated how you navigate yourself through life.
From the time upright homo-sapien woman started nagging upright homo-spaien man about picking up some yak milk on the way home, people have communicated face to face. The speed at which we have gone from speech to letter to telephone to e-mail to texting to simply hitting ‘like’ is phenomenal. How much shorter can our communications get? How long will it be before people can’t look each other in the eye because all interaction is done interactively? How can you learn to read body language, to read between the lines, to empathize and sympathize when you are only talking through typing, not seeing how your words affect?
Face to face communication allows you to see how others react, allows you to respond accordingly, to recalibrate when necessary. It’s a social skill, one which most of us don’t even remember learning, but it is usually painfully obvious when someone lacks it. Phone conversations compensate with auditory cues, inflection and tone and pauses. But texting and instant messaging, in their very immediacy, get rid of any real trace of human interaction. There is no body language, no facial expressions, no tone to read. There is nothing to read but kr8tiv spelling and bad punctuation.
Human beings need one another. We need one another in order to create civilization, in order to create a code of morals, of ethics. If you cannot see how your actions, or your words, or your emotions affect someone, how can you accurately judge whether those actions or words are hurtful or helpful? How can we expect a child to understand what love or violence and everything in between is if they are only being exposed to a constant screen full of Angry Birds and MineCraft monsters?
We need each other, physical and present. Not on a screen, not in a burble of instant messaging. But within view, across the dinner table having a conversation. Around a board game. Talking and not texting. Real, not virtual.
The times? Well, they are still a changin’, for sure. And though I feel old and crotchety, “when I was young” is starting to sound pretty good.