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Plugged In and Tuned Out

by The Next Family February 18, 2011

By: Shannon Ralph

Child plugged into the computer and tuned out

I am sitting on my laptop in my living room writing this. My two boys, Lucas and Nicholas, are playing Super Mario World on the Wii. My daughter, Sophie, is sitting beside me, begging me to let her watch an episode of Hello Kitty on Netflix Instant. I tell her, without even averting my eyes from the screen, that she can watch it after the boys finish their video game. She crosses her skinny little arms in defiance and begins to pout. We are all four in the same room, but we may as well be miles apart. We pay no attention to one another. We occupy the same space, but we are each in our little worlds.

This scenario is one I suspect is played out every day in households all over this country. Technology has managed to drive a wedge into the very heart of our relationships. Yes, I realize that sounds a bit melodramatic, but think about it. A few short years ago, I didn’t even own a cell phone. Now I no longer have a landline. It doesn’t matter either way, however, because people rarely call me anymore. They text. Quick bursts of letters—not even complete words, in most cases—completely lacking in emotion. Rather than picking up a phone to wish a friend a happy birthday, we text them. Rather than calling someone to congratulate them on a promotion or a new baby, we simply click “Like” on their Facebook status. Rather than walking to a coworker’s office to ask them a question, and risking the possibly of getting off-topic discussing our children and books we’ve read and the movies we’ve seen lately—connecting on a real, human level—we simply email our question. No chance of any bothersome connections that way. I wonder what we are teaching our children about human connections in today’s world.

I readily admit that I am as guilty as anyone else when it comes to being dependent on technology. I have a dirty little secret to share. I am in love. And I am not talking about Ruanita. I am completed, head-over-heels infatuated with my laptop. I admit to loving my laptop with a deep, passionate devotion that should be reserved for living creatures—not inanimate objects. But I can’t help myself. It is cherry red and shiny and beautiful. It makes me happy. It is my best friend when I am home alone with my kids. It is my link to an adult world outside of Pop Tarts and PBS cartoons. I can log on at any time and find whatever I am looking for—a supportive friend on Facebook, a stupid video on YouTube to make me laugh, intelligent opinions on the Huffington Post, the latest world news from CNN, sympathetic blogging moms on websites galore. It is my lifeline.

Given my unnatural—and probably ludicrously unhealthy—devotion to my laptop, it should come as no shock to me that my children are infatuated with technology as well. What do we do with today’s technology-obsessed children? I have two of them living in my house. Sophie—perhaps because she is a girl or, more likely, because she is a diva—isn’t really obsessed with technology in the same way as the boys. She typically prefers to get her kicks by following me from room to room reciting the ways in which I have wronged her throughout the day. My two boys, however, are completely enamored of it. If it beeps, bings, chirps, lights up, has a keyboard, or possesses a screen, it will put Lucas and Nicholas into a technology-induced frenzy.
Nicholas, my youngest son, is particularly preoccupied with all things electronic. He is constantly asking to play the Wii. It is the first thing he asks about each morning and the last thing we discuss each night. When we bought the Wii, it was initially meant to be for Ruanita and me. We bought the Wii Fit and had visions of getting slim and sexy by hula hooping along to the characters on the Wii. However, I stepped onto the balance board for the first time and it made a little “ooh” sound and then my Mii character suddenly, and rather shockingly, grew fatter and fatter. I quickly lost all affection for that particular video game. Screw that. I don’t need a video game telling me I am fat. As you can imagine, Ruanita and I rarely play it these days. It has gone the way of the treadmill in our basement family room and the expensive exercise bike taking up space in our living room.

These days, the Wii is all about the boys. We try to limit their play to one hour a day, but I admit to being guilty of letting the Wii act as a “babysitter” of sorts when I am trying to get things done. I am not proud of it, but it works. Nicholas would play video games all day long if we would let him. He never tires of it. And the child is only four years old. I wonder what kind of precedent we are setting. Right now, we control the games the boys play. They are limited to benign, non-violent video games. They play Wii Sports Resort—frisbee, wake-boarding, table tennis, golf. They play Mario Kart and Super Mario World. Games that are more cartoonish than realistic. However, I fear that allowing them to pursue video games at such a young age will eventually lead to a desire to play more complicated, realistic—and eventually, more violent—video games. I hope we will absolutely put our foot down where that is concerned. I am sure we will. However, had you asked me a couple of years ago if I would let my four-year-old son play video games at all, I would have responded with a resounding “hell no!” Technology is insidious in the way it creeps into our lives.

Lucas recently discovered the joys of the internet. He used to only be interested in making “art” with Paintbrush on the computer. However, he has now discovered the web and I am afraid life will never be the same. It doesn’t help that every single cartoon he watches ends with the characters telling him to check out their website. And every toy we buy him has a website printed on the packaging. For a week, he begged me to let him log onto www.Bionicle.com. I finally relented and now he is constantly asking me to play some dumb little robot game on their website. He’s recruited Nicholas, as well. Just yesterday, Nicholas asked me if I would log him onto Curious George’s website. And can I gripe for a moment about my four-year-old being more proficient with a computer than I am? When I first bought my laptop, it took me a solid week to get used to using that little pad on the keyboard instead of a mouse. Nicholas sat down and immediately starting using it as if he’d been doing it his entire life. Despite their tender age, I am afraid that my boys’ technological skills are soon going to bypass my own. Very soon.

I think what bothers me the most about my sons’ preoccupation with technology is not what they are doing and seeing on the internet and television and computer screen. That can be fairly easily controlled—at least at my kids’ current age. What I am more concerned about is what they are not doing and seeing by spending so much time on these electronic devices. What happened to the simple joys of childhood? Before we all became so “plugged-in” all the time? What about riding a bike around the block? Catching fireflies? Freeze tag in the back yard? What about board games and puzzles? Games made of real cardboard, not pixels on a screen. What about playing in the sprinkler? Popsicles staining your lips and dripping on your foot as you eat them outside? Digging in the dirt for worms on a warm summer day? I have to force these things on my children. I have to literally and figuratively “unplug” them and push them out the front door. They may not like it, but I will continue to push it. I don’t want my children missing out on the beautiful things this life has to offer because they have their eyes glued to a screen.

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