Together Alone: Computers, Technology & Kids
What’s happening in the ad world these days? One TV ad running in my area is of a mother who, the narrator chirps, is a master multitasker. She is on a cell phone while making her kids breakfast and sending them off for the day. She’s on the cell phone while doing the grocery shopping with her kids.
She doesn’t even take that phone off her ear when going through the checkout line. Yes, she’s smiling all the time but how is it that whoever is on the other end of that phone is more important than relating to her children and the people in front of her?
Another ad: A woman tells us she is in charge of the family finances and she is so, so happy that she’s found a bundle of cable services that is faster than her old company. We follow her through the house as she indicates her daughter in her room on a computer, her husband in the living room on his laptop and her son in the family room on his tablet. Everyone is happy to have speedy Internet. Everyone is in a different room.
Together alone. Are the ads reflecting American life or are they showing us what we should accept as “normal”? The people who make the ads know what sells. What they seem to be selling these days is the idea that it is normative for family members to be more interested in their electronics than each other. They may even be right.
According to a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between the ages of 8 to 18 are now spending more than seven and a half hours a day on devices with screens (computers, TVs, and other electronics.) That doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones. Meanwhile, research shows that American working parents spend an average of 19 minutes a day of quality time with their children! A study by the U.S. Department of Education found that mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day talking with their children while other polls show that fathers spend an average of 15 minutes per day.
Do the math! Who, or rather what, is spending the most time with our children?
Yes, I know. Computers are a fact of life. A kid who grows up in a home without one is at a decided disadvantage. More and more teachers assume the kids have one available and create assignments that require the ability to search the Internet for information. Social inclusion seems to require it. Cell phones provide a measure of safety for kids who are home alone or who are traveling from place to place.
But there’s a dark side. The time with computers can slide from use to abuse so gradually that we barely notice. That’s why the multitasker mom in the TV ad is so disturbing. She probably isn’t aware of how that little box on her ear has separated her from her children and her community. She thinks she can both be on the phone and in life. As happy as she seems to be, she’s missing interactions that are important to her children’s development and to her relationship with them. She’s missing the opportunity to give her kids a warm send-off in the morning. She isn’t teaching her kids about nutrition, budgeting, and courtesy at the grocery store. The message she is giving them is that they are along for her ride, not important in their own right.