I don’t think of my family as particularly edgy. According to a recent article in the New York Times, titled “Quality Time Redefined” by Alex Williams, though, the edge on which we apparently live is rather cutting. Because sometimes we watch TV together.
I wrote last summer about research and public dialogue claims of the family dinner-as-panacea (the posts are here and here). These claims suggest that the sit-down family dinner promises to solve a multitude of adolescent and teen social problems. While there are some interesting findings worth checking out, I am leary of yet another solution that is placed in mothers’ laps. The research doesn’t specifically say moms are the answer, but it is moms who are most likely to carry the burden of meal preparation, and the guilt about how they do it or don’t. In general, I do not tend to join the chorus of those who lament the ways that family interaction is morphing. I don’t do much in the way of “back in the good old days” ever, really; the good old days weren’t all good, no matter which days you’re talking about, and change is the only constant in this life anyway so I don’t know why we resist it so mightily. I mean please. Various media outlets as well as political and religious leaders have been singing the “death of the family” song ever since I can remember; “arcade” games promised the end of good adolescence and family interaction back in the day, for heaven’s sake. Then cable television, then video games, then individual cell phones. Way before that it was mothers working and before that mothers reading (!) and …oh whatever. So much hand wringing over poor old change, the only thing in this world we’ve ever really been able to count on.
Current lamentations are about how family members, though they share the same physical space, are off in different worlds, tapped into some individual electronic community or phenomena. We are told that this is sad, sad, sad. The “culture of home-based iDistraction,” as Williams puts it, certainly permeates my home. And I’m not feelin’ sad about it. This article is written not from a position of critique or lament so much as it attempts to illustrate the ways in which contemporary plugged-in families spend time in the company of one another, even discussing some of the benefits that information communication technologies bring to families. No, kids and parents are not looking into each others’ eyes sharing deep, meaningful conversation and loving every minute of it. Then again, kids and parents have been busy not doing this for a very, very, very long time.
My doctoral training is grounded in the study of human interaction, with particular emphasis on family communication. I’ve been looking at family interaction for some time now. Family engagement with new media is not, in the least, what worries me. What worries me are intrusions of the state into our time (like school projects and homework) and intrusions of the workplace (which, under the guise of ‘flextime,’ often means that work fills up the work day and then flexes its way into hometime too). What I lament is the loss of the 40-hour work week; “full time” means more and more and more hours, and email and other electronic projects on top of that, usually from one’s living room. So I won’t be shedding any tears or feeling any guilt at all for the fact that my partner is playing cards online with someone from Australia, my daughter is on Facebook, my son is moving between video games and googling information about his part-German heritage, while I’m blogging or tweaking my webpage. This freedom to pursue our own interests actually encourages us to be together, since we don’t have to run screaming in the opposite direction of each other to do so. I’ll be feeling good that we are near one another, that they break from what they’re doing to share with me some discovery, that we like be near each other. And that sometimes, we do things the old-fashioned way and watch the same television together. Over dinner.