Reading the Times (May 7, 2011)

Electronic Devices Redefine Quality Family Time

In “Quality Time, Redefined,” Alex Williams reports on the impact of digital devices on family relationships. Here are some provocative excerpts:

CERTAINLY, people have been hyper-wired as long as there have been laptops, and the tendency became more pronounced with the advent of wireless Internet. Nearly 60 percent of American families with children own two or more computers, and more than 60 percent of those have either a wired or wireless network to connect to the Internet, according to studies by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. A third of all Americans log on from home multiple times a day, nearly twice the number that did so in 2004.

On top of that, iPads have inundated homes since they were introduced a year ago, as have fast-downloading smartphones. Media companies are jumping on board to make sure their content is available at any time, on any device. In the last six months, Netflix has added thousands of movies available for instant streaming, via its Watch Instantly option. In March, Time Warner Cable made selected channels available on an iPad app. Subscribers to MLB.TV can stream major league baseball games any day of the week through a $14.99 iPhone app. And Amazon recently announced a plan to make e-books from 11,000 public libraries available on its Kindle this year.

That amounts to more screen time in homes where everyone already seems glued to their BlackBerrys or sucked in by Facebook, Twitter, blogs — or work.

It’s a profound shift, and one that is not lost on cultural theorists who study the online habits of Americans.

“The transformation of the American living room into a multiscreen communication and entertainment hub” promises to “change our domestic sphere,” said Lutz Koepnick, a media professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies digital culture. “Individual family members might find themselves contently connected to parallel worlds almost all the time.”
. . . . .

James Gleick, the author of the new book “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” said he has been known to spend evenings at home with his wife, each tapped into their own iPad, white cords dangling from their ears. In the near future, he said jokingly, “A new skill that will be taught by relationship counselors will be knowing when and how to interrupt one’s loved ones: Is a particular joke you’ve just read on Twitter worth her yanking out her earbuds?”

Joanne Cantor, a professor emerita and a director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin, suggests it’s almost as if adults and older children are reverting to a form of “parallel play,” the developmental stage when toddlers sit beside each other in silence, playing with toys of their own. Even in the very recent past, when family members would be watching TV together, she said, “We all had conversations during the commercials, even if it was just to say, ‘Wasn’t that stupid?’ ”

I wonder: Is it worse for family members to spend time on different screens rather than watching the same TV show together? If so, why?

Are there possible benefits to family life from what seems to be a breakdown of family unity?

It seems to me that what families need is to establish certain times and traditions, where they are truly and fully together . . . no cell phones, no texting, no interruptions, not even (gasp!) land-line phone calls. Suppose the dinner table became a place of lingering conversation, rather than an opportunity for rushed stomach filling.

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  • Rob

    This is a growing concern of mine as well. The advancement of today’s communication technologies is overwhelming to the mind and probably more than a little dehumanizing.

    Terms like wireless internet and satellite television bring a new shade of meaning to Paul’s expression “the power of the air.” A bit chilling.

  • Anonymous

    Rob: I hadn’t thought about “the power of the air” language before.