Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alone Together

On my run, yesterday, I listened to an interview with a psychologist about the phenomenon of being “alone together.”  How our gadgets are fostering a culture of distraction, a poverty of social skills among youth, and an inability for people to be comfortable being alone.

Online—offline is the new balancing act.  How much should we engage through technology and how much should we engage person-to-person?  

I am struck by how much my gadgets give me the illusion that I’m participating—that I’m connecting with people.  Shooting a message to a old friend on Facebook that I may not have otherwise reconnected with, texting a quick note to my husband during the day, laughing with Sophia over an old Muppets clip on YouTube.  

But tonight I called a cousin I hadn’t spoken to in years, and I was struck by the fact that there is no substitute for hearing each other’s voice.  We never could have had the conversation we did in an email or a PM, listening to the nuances of emotion in each other’s voices, walking down a meandering path into the past, each of our shared memories triggering a new one.  

Another friend called me to say that he wouldn’t be able to see me next weekend.  I immediately felt dismay because there is no substitute, not even voice, for seeing someone in person.  To observe being listened to, and be observed doing the same.  What we fail to communicate in words is conveyed through the eyes.  

Even Skype and Facetime, with the video experience it offers, deprives one of the ability to look into another’s eyes, unless you do the unnatural—staring into the camera instead of the other person before you.  

So when Kevin asked me this evening what I objected to about screen time for Sophia, I found myself having difficulty articulating my fear.  I do think there is such a thing as quality television/movies/computer games, etc.  With the assistance of on demand, the public library, and YouTube, we can monitor the content and limit the commercials—the two things I’m most concerned about.  

I also know that complete restriction will only backfire.  At this point, she has about ½ hour of computer time, 1½ hours of movie time (or two half hours of tv time), and a couple YouTube videos thrown in per week.  Kevin suggested that this was not enough, given the fact that at a birthday party this weekend, she was the only child with her eyes glued to the television set between getting up to bowl.  

The source of my fear is that I don’t know where the tipping point is.  When do we pass that magical number of minutes where she will no longer stare at the video advertising sushi at Wegmans, hungry for it’s glowing image, but do not venture so far over the line that it becomes a substitute for real life.  For real engagement.  

I don’t know where that line is.  I struggle with it myself.  I feel naked without my cell.  I have felt shame when Sophie has asked, “Mommy could you please stop looking at your phone?”  I have had to consciously put it in the trunk of my car while on a date with my husband, so as not to be tempted to interrupt our time together with a Saturday night email check.  

Who is trying to get in touch with me on a Saturday night?  No one.

As a result, I don’t know how to teach Sophia how to find the line without providing some boundaries around it.  Without having a time to be on and a time to be off.  

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