The other night I was sitting at a restaurant and noticed a family of four at the next table. What I saw was a sad, but familiar sight. The two teenage kids had no communication with their parents or each other throughout their entire "family" dinner. Each of them sat head down, pressing their smart phones at full speed, not even noticing when the food arrived and never uttering one word. What happened to the family dinner talk about how your day was?
Two weeks ago I was sitting in a pricy seat at a major pop star's concert, and noticed the teenage boy next to me stayed engaged in his video game throughout the concert.
Questions I am raising for parents in this blog are: How soft or hard addicted are your kids to these virtual ways of communication? What other activities might they be missing out on? Do you see signs of any socially phobic tendencies when your child is in live and in person interactions? And when is the right time to introduce your child to cell phones and computer games?
Children's digital media expert Patricia Greenfield told the New York Times, "You should wait as long as possible to get your kid a cell phone to maintain parent-child communication." I agree. Young kids raised on cell phones and hand held addictive games as their main entertainment may be missing out on some fun family time and short changing their physical bodies and social skills as well. Computers and cell phones have merits for sure and can even be great learning tools but its up to the parent to keep track of how many hours and what activities your kids are using them for.
When I visited Japan I heard firsthand from people about what I had read in the NY Times and Washington Post; that as many as a million Japanese-most of them teenage men-are considered shut-ins, either literally cloistered in their rooms or refusing to work and avoiding all social contact except in cyber space for periods ranging from six months to more than 10 years. Forty-one percent of them live reclusively for one to five years, according to a government survey and spend most of their times in cyber space. I wonder how many socially inhibited teens in the U.S never want to leave their room and may not?
It's becoming increasingly hard for teens to stay out of their heads and cyber space and stay connected to their bodies, their families and the outdoors, in a high-tech, stressful world that all but erases their animal nature. As we have evolved into high-tech beings, too many of our kids are abandoning the body by living virtual lives that over-emphasize the mind. Cell phones, electronic tablets, virtual games and computers dominate their lives. Physical activity falls by the wayside as they move less and sit staring at screens. They move less and think more and play less physically as virtual experts who spend hours watching the tube, playing video games, emailing, text-messaging, and socializing on internet sites. This really came home to me when a group of ten-year-olds came with me and my friend to the beach. The boys preferred to sit in the minivan and pass on the sand and waves because they preferred playing their handheld computer Gameboys! Missing an opportunity to play on the beach? I'm sorry but that crossed the line, or should I say sand for me.
Companies are aggressively marketing electronics to younger children with colorful kid-friendly phones with easy-to-use features. According to market research firm the Yankee Group, 54 percent of 8 to12 year olds will have cell phones within the next three years. According to C&R Research, 22 percent of young children own a cell phone (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14), and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18.
The average kid logs in 2.5 hours of music on their units each day, almost five hours of TV and movies, three hours of Internet and video games, and just 38 minutes of reading, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That adds up to 75 hours of media every week. And that doesn't even include the hour and a half spent text messaging each day, and the half hour kids talk on the cell phone. The cell phone is one of the gadgets that makes this all possible for kids. "You don't have to sit down in front of a TV anymore and watch television at the time a show is broadcast," said Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Kids can watch it on their laptop, in their bedroom. They can watch it on their cell phone on the bus to school." Again, what happened to family time around the tube together, with popcorn?
Wow, what has the technical revolution cost us? It has taken us away from, instead of closer to our bodies and that costs us in health, social, emotional growth, and more. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers this perspective in his book, The Evolving Self: "After a huge jump in evolution, organisms learned to find out what was going on at a distance from them, without having to actually feel the environment. The big advance occurred when organisms developed memory. Up to this point, the processing of information was entirely intrasomatic, that is it took place within the body of the organism. But when speech appeared (and even more powerfully with the invention of writing), information processing became extrasomatic." Csikszentmihalyi adds that we now store information outside of our bodies and minds on paper and in computers, causing us to expand our awareness but further distance ourselves from home base, our body.
I suggest keeping an eye on your children's cell/computer usage and setting some boundaries and electronic time outs in your home, at restaurants and family vacations. As parents and the one who pays the bills, you can set guidelines and rules about the usage and help your kid understand, there is a world of physical activities to enjoy, outside of computer chip land. Oh yeah, and that might mean you will have to turn off your laptop and play with them too. Hint Hint.