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Can We Ever Unplug?

Can We Ever Unplug?

Our family’s built-in media-free zone.


The prominent Kaiser Family Research Foundation recently shocked America with a ground-breaking study of media use among American children. According to the findings, the average 8-to-18-year-old spends over seven and a half hours each day using electronic media. That's 53 hours each week spent on-line, texting, watching TV, talking on the phone, playing video games, or (more likely) engaging in more than one of these activities at once.

That's more than most adults spend each week at work. In fact, aside from sleep and school, American children are basically always plugged into an electronic device.

As the mother of four children, I was aghast. True, my kids don't spend anywhere near seven and a half hours each day playing with electronic gadgets. But they're young, I thought. My oldest is just eight years old; perhaps with time he will bow to this new American reality.

It might be the new American reality, but I think it is an unfortunate one. People crave “real” experiences. We also crave connection with other people.

Heavy use of social media can make people feel socially isolated and depressed.

There have been a host of scientific studies that show heavy use of social media can make people feel socially isolated and depressed. Many of us will identify with the words of Dr. Patricia Greenfield, who directs the Children’s Digital Media Center, which is a collaboration between UCLA and California State University: “Human beings evolved for face-to-face communication. The presence of another person in the flesh triggers important human emotions such as empathy. We may be reducing such emotions in developing human beings by reducing face-to-face communication and augmenting electronic communication.”

While Dr. Greenfield (like many of us) acknowledges that modern inventions like the internet have great uses and benefits as well as drawbacks, her words seem to capture something essential in social communication today. In our fast-paced world, we can do and learn so much, but too often these amazing new abilities do nothing to make us happier or more fulfilled. There can be a feeling that something is missing. Despite all the instant connections, the basic need for relationship with something solid and real is going unmet.

I had thought that the lifestyle my husband and I had chosen ensured our children against the seduction of so much media use. After all, we are raising our children in a home without TV. I am raising my children to respect values such as honesty, integrity, monogamy and modesty and, let's face it, those qualities are lacking on many TV programs.

The other reason we don't watch TV is that it is not a constructive use of time. If they are bored, I'd rather they play with a friend or one of their siblings, build something, make a beautiful project, or learn something new – rather than zone out in front of the TV.

So on that count I was secure: I don't expect my kids to start watching lots of TV anytime soon. But that only accounts for a fraction of the typical child’s media diet. In fact, the very day I read of the Kaiser Foundation's results, my two older children came home from school with notes from their teachers directing us to a website where they could play fun computer games that would review their weekly spelling words. For the first time in years, my kids said they didn't want me to quiz them; instead, they explained, they would do it on the computer.

I was saddened by this new development. I'd always enjoyed quizzing them on their weekly spelling, and as I watched them play spelling games on the computer (with their younger siblings gathered around, watching, of course) I thought more and more of the Kaiser study. Was this the thin end of the wedge? Were my children beginning to draw away from me, and from real human interaction, into a world of electronic stimulation?

The study also pointed to an interesting new trend: most children multitask. I didn't think much about this until later in the week, when I met some old friends for coffee. We met in the caf?, selected a table and sat down – then both my friends promptly reached into their bags, pulled out their cell phones, and laid them on the table. We chatted a while, and then as we talked, one friend looked down, read a text message, and quickly texted back. I looked at her, incredulous, but she just carried on our conversation as if nothing had happened.

A few minutes later, the second friend responded to a text message, too, and while she was texting, the first took the opportunity to send another message from her phone. This was getting ridiculous. "What are you texting for?" I asked, perhaps a little too strongly. Both my friends looked at me, surprised by my tone. One was helping a friend through a crisis, she explained; what was wrong with that? The other replied that her husband needed her input to make some social arrangements; it only took a minute to answer him.

I stared at my friends, dumbfounded. True, there is nothing wrong with helping out a friend or answering a spouse's question, but I still felt that our conversation wasn't as focused, wasn't as "real" as it should have been.

The next day was Friday. I was still disturbed by the events of the week. As usual, Friday was a busy day for me, with Shabbat beginning at sundown, and from that moment until Saturday evening we refrain from activities like cooking, writing and using any electronic gadgets. I was working to prepare our Shabbat meals when my kids came home from school. I asked them how they had done on their spelling tests. This was the first week they had prepared using the online games. What were the results?

My two older kids hung their heads. They usually do well on these tests, but that week had been a disaster: four wrong, three wrong. Not their usual level at all.

I looked at them, then at our beautiful Shabbat table which already set. Suddenly, the worry that had been dogging me all week began to disappear. For a whole day nobody in our home would use a single electronic item: not a telephone, radio, computer, iPod or Blackberry. This would be 100% distraction-free time. If we spoke to anybody, it would have to be in person. If we played any game, it would have to be something we could physically touch.

And then I realized that Shabbat has the power to illuminate the rest of the week as well. "You know what?" I asked my kids. "No more practicing spelling on the computer. From now on, we'll do it together, the old-fashioned way." They nodded and went to get ready for Shabbat – our family’s built-in media-free zone.

March 6, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) SusanE, March 12, 2010 1:29 AM

I Carry My Cellphone and I Have the TV on Right Now.

But I turn the TV off if you stop by. And I turn off my cell so it doesn't intrude in public. ---------------------- It is beyond rude the cell phone conversations I have heard. A nurse in the city hospital today was 'rageing' in the hallway outside the physicians office on her cellphone during work time. I was waiting for the elevator and she was yelling about a person she hated to work with and office politics. I didn't want to hear that. I thought Gawd woman get a grip. You have patients to attend to. ----------------------- If I pick up my cellphone for a text or a chat when I am with you, I am saying, I would rather be sharing a conversation with somebody else. We all know there isn't an emergency. No one died in the hour I'm having dinner. ----------- Turn off the phone, and leave it in the car. I have been with people several times when they have carried on a cell conversation for 3 or 4 minutes at a restaurant. (business call). They would say "Do you mind I really need to take this call? I don't know how to say "Yes I mind, for crying out loud you are being rude". They don't realize (or care) how rude that is so, when dinner came I said excuse me I see some people I want to say hello to and left my friend eating alone for several minutes. When I came back to the table, I said "You don't mind do you, I really wanted to talk with them. ----------------------- When kids or adults plug in they are shutting out the world around them. At home with family, at school with friends. They don't want to be in that moment. They have nothing meaningful to talk about. They aren't thinking about the space they are in or what is going on around them. Kinda' like robots recharging their batteries through the hole in their ears.

(12) Anonymous, March 11, 2010 6:53 PM

Blame the tools not the workers

Sorry, I must disagree with your article. It reminds me so much of the Luddite movement which was going to smash machinery in the industrial era because it replaced workers. Technology has its good and bad and as with anything new, people need to adapt to it. Social media has its advantages - new jobs are advertised, you can keep up with colleagues interstate and overseas BUT you must learn how to deal with it. Removing the TV, Internet or cellphone does not teach you how to use it wisely. This is the pitchfork mentality of creating a witch and then drowning or burning her. The solution is to teach adults and children how to use technology and social media wisely. Choose television programs wisely and use the Internet "as part of a balanced [social] diet". Judaism actually teaches us to achieve balance. The Rambam was always about balance whether it was diet or living your life humbly. Jacob who represented Tiferet (beauty) was called the perfect man because he could combine strength/restrain with kindness. Banning TV is simply gevurah (restraint) whereas overindulging is chesed (no restraint) neither is good - let's get some balance here, put away the pitchforks and use technology wisely.

(11) Anonymous, March 10, 2010 5:14 PM

Time to stomp it out again at my house

I am a single parent and broke my leg seriously about two yrs ago; I was bedridden over a yr. After having got rid of t.v. a couple of yrs earlier, I brought it back during this time. Fast forward, I am back on my feet, but the t.v. is still here. Last week my little boys cried because I wouldn't let them see something that "my friends are allowed" after their day at yeshiva. So two days ago the cable stuff was unplugged, the t.v. exchanged for a monitor to hook up to my computer and dvd player. My children are going through serious withdrawal, and it hurts to see them unhappy, but it has to be done to correct my mistake in letting it grow again in my home. I know going into Pesach that this will bring more shalom bayis and help my sons grow into fine yidden.

(10) Anonymous, March 10, 2010 4:35 PM

Not just for kids

I thought the same way, kids should be outside, and connecting to each other, being active. Several years later, I get a computer and here I am spending so much time on it. What I thought about the kids, I need to tell it to myself now. To much of a good thing, makes it not a good thing. Balance is the answer to all the new tech. Time to turn off the computer, gotta go and get active, I'll take some time to have a little sabbath, every day. Not telling the kids this time, but myself.

(9) Maureen Schak, March 9, 2010 6:18 PM

Keeping things in perspective

I do agreee with the author that the virtual world has become too important for many. Is it an escape from reality? Is it easier to communicate anonymously? Is it more exciting to talk to a stranger than a neighbour? As for the ubiquitous texting, I can only hope that the novelty of constant connection will lose its appeal. Why is the person sending you a message more important than the person you are facing across the table? Doesn't anyone crave a few minutes of peace and quiet any more? Technology has improved our lives immeasurably, and I suppose we have to take the good with the bad, but we have to remember that children need to value learning and the importance of real relationships. Then they can explore our extended realities.

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