Fergus Cullen: There is no escape from the ubiquitous blaring video screen
Not even Santa can give me what I want for Christmas this year: A week without screens.
It was bad enough when TVs multiplied and migrated from living rooms to bedrooms to kitchens, often set up to view from the dinner table. The average American home has three TVs, more than it has people.
Now TV monitors are everywhere we go outside the home, too. In the checkout line at Walmart. At many gas pumps. They are increasingly found in family restaurants. Try finding a table at Applebee's that doesn't have a TV screen in view.
This past summer in a medical waiting room, I tried to read the newspaper but struggled to block out the television despite having sat with my back to it. Eventually I turned to the only other waiting patient, a woman trying to read a book, and asked if she would mind if I turned the TV off. "Please do," she replied with emphasis, so I did.
Within a minute the receptionist was out to turn the infernal box back on. "I like the background noise," she said. Then get ear buds, I thought.
I want to cut the cords, but it's especially hard to do when you're raising young children, even for well-intentioned parents. The fact is, a TV or iPad babysits very well, certainly well enough to allow a parent to get some work done or take a shower. Handhelds and the flip-down screen in the back of the SUV can be lifesavers on longer trips.
Our kids are 8, 3, and 2, and despite our reasonable efforts they all show addiction to screens. The 8-year-old likes Mario video games and Little Big Planet. More than one play date has amounted to him and a buddy sitting on a couch playing two separate DS handheld games. The 3-year-old can play Angry Birds for hours. Even the 2-year-old climbs up on the couch and points to the TV to indicate she wants to watch a show.
The boys fight for mommy's iPhone, the toy with a screen so intuitive the younger one figured out how to navigate it before he turned 2. Now 3-and-a-half, he uses his mother's Kindle so much she felt obliged to get another one to keep exclusively for her own use. They are figuring out the MacBook and it's only a matter of time before they will need their own.
When my generous and well-meaning father-in-law decided to upgrade our living room with a digital flat screen, I couldn't really say no, but I knew this wasn't going to help matters. The Wii that Mrs. Santa is rumored to have purchased this year isn't likely to improve the situation, either.
I don't doubt for a moment that all these screens zone people out and shorten attention spans. There's much less reading happening, and also less playing, indoors or out. There are fewer conversations. I worry about the extent to which they are rotting brains, directly and indirectly.
Yes, I know all these devices come with on/off buttons. We're trying to come up with a system of time limits, or to let the children earn screen time for doing something crazy like reading for a period of time, but my wife and I both know this is going to be hard to enforce, especially in winter.
It's not just a problem affecting kids. As soon as a luncheon or after-dinner speaker isn't entertaining, half the audience starts furtively or not so furtively checking email, Facebook, the stock market or the news on their smart phones. It's like having a portable remote control device that turns the speaker off or teleports the audience member out of the room.
A weak speaker or one who goes on too long can lose easily 75 percent of the audience. It takes an exceptional speaker to keep 90 percent of an audience from reaching for a smart phone these days. Giving a speech is like being on the Gong Show with a silent gong.
If readers have some good ideas on how to control screen time with kids, send them to me. I'm serious. I'm desperate. And I doubt I'm alone.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.