Reading to your kid, an aspect of parenting I was lucky enough to get a healthy dose of, seems like a simple task. However, the social norms of the modern era often push it, and other parallel parenting tasks, to the bottom of the priority list. We believe that we have conquered time. Every hour is for productivity. Seldom is there a moment where just one thing is done. The 9 to 5 job has become 24 hours long. Cell phones do not turn off, or, God forbid, lose their charge. We are constantly on call. Staring at screens with tired eyes and furrowed brows, we juggle our devices, treating them like people and forgetting that they are hardwired plastic.
In a recent article in the New York Times by Julie Scelfo, the dangers of the enslaving qualities of electronics and technology are analyzed in the job that is supposed to be full time: parenthood. Though the use of technology by children is often examined in relationship to their development, the use of technology by their parents may play just as large a role. Doctor Turkle, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self quoted in the article, states; “There’s something that’s so engrossing about the kind of interactions people do with screens that they wall out the world,” she said. “I’ve talked to children who try to get their parents to stop texting while driving and they get resistance, ‘Oh, just one, just one more quick one, honey.’ It’s like ‘one more drink.’ ” Could technology be as damaging as a disease as severe as alcoholism as this quote suggests? Most would scoff at this comparison, but it does have merit. Technology has addictive qualities. It can both strengthen and inhibit communication. This is true too in the realm of parenting. A parent may be home more due to the freedom that smartphones and internet access allow, but this time spent at home could be of lower quality. Ignoring a child, even momentarily, in order to send off one more business e-mail, or check one more text message, can become habit. Every time this occurs, fewer words are exchanged between parent and child—words that are the building blocks of social and intellectual development.
From fights over too-full laundry hampers and living room spills to full-fledge political discussions, the billions of words I have exchanged with my parents throughout my lifetime have created the person I am today. Scelfo’s article, “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In,” referenced a study that analyzed the culminating impact of these strands of words statistically. It looked at the socioeconomics of the sentences spoken among families in their private homes, and found that “children in higher socioeconomic homes hear an average of 2,153 words an hour, whereas those in working-class households hear only about 1,251; children in the study whose parents were on welfare heard an average of 616 words an hour.” Looking at this data, it seems that future success and development correlate with the number of words exchanged between parent and child. Granted, this is a huge generalization, but it seems likely that the parents on the high end of the socioeconomic spectrum may have more time to spend with their children due to economic privilege, while the working class parents may be absent more often due to the demands of a blue collar job. This notion supports the idea that it is incredibly difficult to rise from the social niche you are born into. Overcoming the developmental deficiencies of an environment you could not choose is a monumental feat. Reading this article in a publication that caters to wealthier well-educated Americans, it was easy for me to accept these statistics as logical from my comfortable perspective near the top of the social ladder. Though I don’t think it is fair or right, it made sense that the children of affluent parents with presumably high levels of education would be more exposed to language and opportunities to intellectually develop. However, the article offered an interesting twist. In today’s society, the wealthy families whose children once benefitted from more avid communication, are now the families that have the ability to own smartphones ,laptops, and televisions with thousands of channels. Simply put, the statistics are starting to flip. Money now offers wealthy parents the opportunity (and often obligation) to communicate less with their children. In a study of the average number of words spoken between parents and children with smartphones on versus off, there were cases in which words exchanged per hour were almost cut in half when the phones were on. There were still families who managed to maintain the same level of communication with the phones on and off, but the results remain troubling.
Technology has the ability to prevent us from actually living our lives. The question remains; How can we reap the benefits of technology while avoiding its addictive multi-tasking mentalities that affect our relationships and keep us from being “present?” I wonder if it is possible to design products with the more destructive consequences of technology in mind. What if we designed in a way that encouraged people to focus on only one thing at a time? For example, I have heard people complain about the iPhone and iPad, whining that they cannot open more than one application at a time. But what if that’s actually more beneficial? What if it forces you to actually enjoy the one thing you are doing? Sure there are times when juxtaposing information and windows on screen can lead to epiphanies and intriguing collages of information, but not all of the time. Do you really want your doctor staring at a screen with 10 windows open simultaneously as you try to describe your worrisome symptoms and he or she nods absentmindedly while navigating multiple other priorities? We need technology that refocuses us. In a world where the newest commodities are desirable, maybe this renovation is possible. We need a new product to trick us into a use of technology that reminds us that less can be more.
Below is a collage I’ve made that sums up the Plugged In mentality of the modern world that has become so inescapable: