CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Texting. Tweeting. Facebooking. Emailing. iPad, iPod, smartphone. Surfing the Net. Flipping the remote.
If you've had a family gathering lately, I'll bet at least one member -- if not most -- were tuned in to some external device.
Why is it so hard to just be where we are? And what toll is it taking on the family unit?
I'm certainly not against technology. These devices help us to be more efficient in many areas of our lives. The problem is -- and I've wrestled with it myself -- what's the right balance of being plugged in and unplugged?
While there's no universal answer, just take a look around. People are running into one another -- or light poles -- as they're walking while talking on cellphones. Car crashes are accelerating as a result of distracted drivers (although the "no texting while driving" pledges and laws ought to help). A restaurant server told me recently he waited on a family of four, and all of them were buried in their smartphones. He was barely able to get their attention to place their food orders!
The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that kids are spending about 6.5 hours a day using electronic media. And, in addition, they're packing more media exposure into that time -- about 8.5 hours' worth, thanks to "media multitasking" -- listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and texting all at the same time.
So, what's the impact of this media consumption? And how are these devices changing the ways we learn, reason and interact with one another? Not to mention our families, friends, teachers, co-workers and society in general?
Social scientists are just beginning to tackle these questions. According to Time magazine, multitasking kids may be better prepared for today's frenzied workplace. However, many cognitive scientists are alarmed by the trend.
"Kids who are texting while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
And this isn't just happening with kids. On the flipside, younger children resent the time their parents are plugged in and ignoring them. Here are a few comments gathered by Dr. Michelle Borba, educational scientist and author:
"She's always on her BlackBerry. It's sooo annoying." "I hate it when he's talking on his cell. It makes me feel sad." "I put a timer on the computer. When it goes off, it's time to play with me."
Each chat, text or click makes kids feel like they don't matter to their parents, according to Borba, when citing a study of 4- to 7-year-olds. Ouch!
Reminds me of the old "Cat's in the Cradle" song -- where the dad didn't have time to play with his son. And then when the kid was grown -- and the dad wanted to spend time with him and the grandkids -- the son didn't have time for him (repeating the pattern).
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self has been analyzing how parental technology use affects kids. Director Sherry Turkle's research has turned up widespread feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition.