Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of The Lost Art of Conversation and Drivers Who Text

A new book called Alone Together, penned by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, argues that our children have lost the art of conversation, and that mobile devices are largely to blame.

Dr. Turkle surveyed hundreds of people in the course of her research, and her results were disheartening, though hardly difficult to believe. The average young adult fires off and receives 3,200 text messages a month. That adds up to hours spent hunched over small screens, fingers flying over tiny touch pads. Several eighteen-year-olds told Dr. Turkle they'd rather text than talk.

But it's not just the kids. Dr. Turkle's book recounts story after story of families doing "family things" together. Parents and kids are around the dinner table or at the shore, and every individual has mobile device in hand.

She even recounts instances of people observed texting at funerals. I might not have believed this a few years ago. Then I attended a wedding interrupted by the insidious chime of the iPhone's signature ring. The mother of the bride actually checked to see who was calling before silencing the thing.

Do we really need an MIT scientist to tell us this isn't healthy? Let alone rude?

Apparently, we do.

I was surprised to read the welcome letter for the Grape's little soccer team. It's really pre-soccer. They practice but don't play matches until next year. Or maybe even the year after that. Anyway, the coaches specified that the kids (ages 3 to 4) would not be allowed to use cell phones during the forty-five minute sessions. Is this the new normal? Do schools now send out similar communiques about how Junior is expected to refrain from texting during algebra class?

I imagine that children have always learned the fine art of conversation by observation and participation. If kids are checked into a phone or tablet when adults are talking, they're robbed of a valuable opportunity to grow socially.

Conversely, if the kids see the adults slap their phones next to their dinner forks when sitting down to a meal, what are they learning? Maybe I'm in the old-fashioned minority, but I firmly believe it's bad manners to dine with one person while furtively checking for overtures from another.

Similarly, children learn manners and patience by being a little bored once in a while. I cringe whenever I see the car commercial where one kid pities the other because his parents' minivan lacks a video system. Why should every ten minute errand feature entertainment? I think it's good for the little darlings to gaze at the world and contemplate life in short spurts. The Italians call it dolce far niente, literally the sweetness of doing nothing, and it's sorely lacking in modern society.

We're jittery and over stimulated and suffer, as a populace, from countless debilitating sleep disturbances. Could this be due, at least in part, to the fact that we're never, from a very young age, unplugged?

Maybe I'm a hypocrite, since I write a blog and use all manner of social media for social and business purposes. I check my email with my first cup of coffee in hand. But like the binge drinker who really, truly can stop any time, I can unplug. One of the best little perks of traveling overseas is the hiatus from screens and data. I turn off the data when I go on vacation (even the best international data plans are extortion) and I often leave my smart phone locked in the hotel safe for days on end. It feels great to step off the grid in this small way, and I do find myself more engaged in the moment.

And please, while we're on the topic of travel, don't send me hate mail about how your kid's iPad is a godsend on a long flight, because I agree. Certain situations, including and especially long intervals trapped on mass transit, call for extreme measures. If six hours of Dora are needed to get from here to London without sparking mutiny by fellow passengers, I understand and indeed applaud that.

But I think social/leisure time is different. I want my kid to think the guy texting while wading in the surf with his kids is not the greatest model for behavior. When dining, or meeting friends at the park or the beach or wherever, kids need to learn that the meal and company are the entertainment.

I understand dining with preschoolers can be painful. Today we met friends for lunch at a family friendly restaurant and had one of those meals wherein we just got through it. Everyone got fed, no major calamities occurred, but it wasn't really that much fun, because the kids were stir crazy and fidgety after a rainy weekend. They spent much of the meal squirming in the booth. Fortunately, it was a corner booth in the back and they succeeded in annoying no one nearly so much as their own parents.

Someone asked recently, "If it's a nice place, would you make an exception to the no video rule?"

No. Emphatically no, because I would never bring the Grape to a fine dining establishment,  because I think it's terribly inconsiderate of other patrons. People shelling out over thirty dollars an entree are paying for ambiance. Ambiance doesn't include a child riveted to a cartoon at the next table any more than it includes a screaming baby. Similarly, if parents of a tot can afford to eat in such venues, they can also afford a sitter. "But how is he supposed to practice all these social skills?" I've been asked by parents in the give him a video and shut him up camp.

That's easy: in family friendly eateries and in neighborhood bistros, during the blue hair and high chair hours before seven. Places where it's marginally okay to repeat and reinforce lessons such as "We never scream in restaurants."

I know I'm swimming upstream with my no device stance. I imagine the day will come when I'll issue the Grape a phone, as much for my convenience as for his entertainment and communication desires. I'm hopeful, though not convinced, that by then our society's collective love affair with our gadgets will have dialed down a notch.

Many states already ticket texting drivers, which is a good start. Perhaps when and if the hordes of helicopter parents among us start to think of perpetual iGadget usage as a health and safety problem, we'll see people of all ages starting to look up from their screens. If we modern parents are going to make our kids wear helmets on tricycles, it seems to me that we should also demand the teens and adults among us don't text while navigating busy intersections by car. Someone's kid could be in the cross walk. And a trike helmet doesn't do much against a speeding SUV.

I'm not holding my breath.

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