What is it with all the electronic screens in our lives?

We rely on these visual monitors for information about our world, for mediating our relationship to the world, for escaping the demands of the world, and we devote a huge amount of our lifetime to this visual pursuit. Consider some recent estimates of the time involved. “Kids between eight and 18 are spending more than seven hours a day on screens, often using more than one media platform at a time.” (Harvard Magazine, p. 58, July 2012.) Then of course, there is the parent of all modern screens, the television. “According to the New York Times, which mined data from Nielsen Research, the average American watched 34 hours of television each week last year.” (tv.com 1/3/2011.)

Times have certainly changed. In my parents' growing up came the movie screen, in my growing up came the televsion screen, in my children's growing up came the computer screen, and in my grandchild's growing up came the modern multiplicity of screens. Today, when you add up some of the screens people can watch – game station screens, DVD screens, TV screens, computer screens, mobile device screens, movie screens, reader screens, cell phone screens, pad screens, for example – the electronic screen consumes huge amounts of our attention. Occupational hours in front of a computer aside, how many recreational hours per week of their precious life time does the “average American” of all ages, and the “average American adolescent” in particular, spend viewing all these kinds of screens? I have no idea.

I do know that parents often become concerned about the amount of screen time their adolescent is putting in on a regular basis. “He spends so much time playing video games.” “She spends so much time social networking.” “He spends so much time watching TV.” “She spends so much time texting.” “He and his friends are into endless computer games.” “She’s forever checking her email.” “He can’t go anywhere without his electronic brain.” “It’s all the time wanting to go to movies or watch DVD’s.”

For me, it’s hard to tell if the increasing amount of leisure screen time adolescents put in each week is an emerging problem or simply a social and cultural adjustment to major technological change that is here to stay. Certainly the electronic screen is a vast platform or window or stage on which young people can act out a wide variety of roles – as audience, as spectator, as creator, as player, as communicator, as networker, as shopper, as trader, as researcher, as searcher, as performer, as student, as helper, as teacher, as entertainer, to name a few. The possibilities are mind boggling. The electronic screen is now a means to so many ends.

Where parents seem to have concern is when the electronic screen is used more for escape from than engaging with real life experiences and responsibilities and developing real life skills, when fantasy shapes sense of reality, when the endless circus of entertainment is at the expense of laborious and boring education or work, when solitary screen time discourages social contact and growth, when online activity consumes more life time than offline activity.

At worst, some parents cry “addiction!” as though a harmful degree of “screen dependence” has developed. And the addiction metaphor is scary. As it was once explained to me, “when you have something to sell, you want to encourage addiction because addicts are the best customers. Once they are hooked, they keep coming back.” In the case of screen dependence, the marketplace can be seen as a powerful and unprincipled pusher that has only one goal – to consume more consumer lifetime and attention. All screen time makes money for someone, and all screen time is at the expense of screen-free activity elsewhere.

Of course, before parents treat leisure screen time as an adolescent problem, they need to factor in themselves. In most cases I have seen, they are at least as “dependent” as their teenagers. They only differ in their viewing, surfing, communicating, networking, playing, escape, and other entertainment habits and tastes. Interestingly, it is very common for parents to interrupt their counseling session to pull out their commandingly vibrating or ringing cell phone in order to “see” who is calling now, but to date I have never had an adolescent do such a thing. So if parents want to examine their adolescent’s screen time, they would do well to examine their own and the example they set.

For starters, at home as a family, do they spend more recreational time attending and interacting with a screen or attending and interacting directly with each other? Do they communicate in constant competition with screen time going on? Is talking to the side of someone’s head and split attention the best listening they can give and get? If so, at least when there is something important to discuss, they may want to opt for clear channel communication: face to face talking with all electronic screens turned off.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com.

I welcome reader questions and suggested topics for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Award of Recognition

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