When All Time is Screen Time

I wrote once before about how I saw our culture of ever-present televisions screens moving toward, and yet narrowly avoiding, the dystopian predictions that once lay 20 minutes into the future. I occasionally wonder, of late, if we’re about 15 minutes after that.

I spend many of my waking hours in front of a screen. It’s the nature of what I do for a living. Our schedules are busy, and I notice our daughter craving attention more, and resenting the screens that pry our attentions away from her…until she has the opportunity to watch what she wants on a screen. Then, prying her attention away becomes the task at hand, fraught with a host of unpleasant crying and occasional tantrums.

Given how guarded we were with her screen time initially, I wonder how far we’ve fallen.

A few weekends ago, we were traveling to visit family. My parents took all of us out to one of their favorite restaurants, where we attempted to have conversations and catch up…the purpose, after all, of those sorts of trips. The issue was that there were large flat screens positioned for each vantage point of the restaurant, each showing different programming, so that, regardless of where one sat, one had television to watch. I tried very intentionally to remain focused on the conversation, but the television drew me back within seconds of each attempt. The hour that passed during that meal was essentially lost, at least for me, as I heard little and contributed less, victim to the distraction of the closed-caption onslaught of images that drew me back, back, back.

And, when I did manage to return, I found our daughter showing the disappointment which has become all too familiar, so strongly desiring my attention to shift to her.

A former physician for our family had a large waiting room. What I remember most about that waiting room is the cacophony. There were, again, flat screens on each wall, all muted and closed captioned, with a radio station playing from above, as well. Add the conversation around you from others waiting, and I did well to hear my name called. That waiting room was an exercise in creating a true attention deficit disorder.

The city where we lived shortly after moving to New England had a very attractive coffee shop. The atmosphere was quiet, the hearth comfortably warm, the drinks of high quality, the surrounding conversation always good, except for…the television in the corner that was always tuned into, of all things, Fox News. Want to kill a wonderful atmosphere? Blaring news programming will be most effective.

The point is, whenever the television is available, it wins. No matter how devoutly we may wage war against it in favor of giving our attention to those we love, the programming will always be too strong an opponent. So, while I’m not given to using war metaphors for my examples, I’ve determined that the only manner in which to effectively combat such an enemy is to avoid the conflict altogether. When we don’t have an option? When the enemy awaits us, innocently disguised as the normal expectation in a waiting room or a restaurant? We lose. We’re set up for failure. It’s over before it began.

And I watch our daughter’s excitement when I am finally able to close my computer for the day and divert my eyes from the screen to meet hers, to engage in her world of play and imagination. Hers is an excitement that’s wonderfully contagious, and yet the kind that is borne of finally being able to grasp something that has previously proven so frustratingly elusive.

I watch this, and I realize how widespread the casualties of this war are, and how very, very important it is that we find a way to escape with what Salinger so well described as having one’s f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

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