Saturday Morning Cartoons and Other Choices About Technology Use–Thoughts on Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”
When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly ritual. I watched several, and carefully planned which channel to watch at 8, 8:30, 9…. It was important to me. I sat there for hours, and loved it. I looked forward to it every week. My husband Pete had the same experience. We share an encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo.
Did that harm us? I don’t know. I feel kinda like we turned out OK. But we would never let our kids vegetate all Saturday morning that way. Saturday mornings they usually have a soccer game (spring and fall), basketball game (winter), or swimming lesson (summer). They get half an hour of TV a day, and we don’t ever just give them the channel changer and let them watch whatever’s on–they have my old TiVO, and they pick among shows we have recorded for them. (Their current obsession: Myth Busters. Hooray for good TV! But we don’t mind when they get on a run of lighter fare like Phineas and Ferb.)
So what happened in the intervening generation? We are both the product of what I would call typical middle class families of the time. But in the years since then, our cultural sensibility about appropriate TV use for kids has shifted. In a great paper to be presented at CSCW 2011 this March, Morgan Ames, Janet Go, Jofish Kaye and Mirjana Spasojevic show how currently practices about kids’ “screen time” today in America vary by social class. Middle class parents worry about limiting their kids’ use of all kinds of screens (TV, computer, video game, and cell phone) much more than working class parents. What impact will this have in the long run? It’s an intriguing question.
Television is seductive. The easy thing is to just let kids watch what they want. Today, we have come to a point where parents (at least educated parents) are making choices to not do the easy thing and let kids have all they want. But it took a generation for those cultural norms to begin to evolve, and that process is still happening.
My reflections on the indulgent TV habits of my youth were prompted by Sherry Turkle’s insightful new book Alone Together (which I am currently half done reading). In it, Turkle draws attention to many of the “three hours of Saturday morning TV” issues of the present. Teens texting over 100 times a day on average? Parents using smart phones at the dinner table? Professionals flying all the way to Tokyo to attend a meeting but then opening their laptops and ignoring the discussion? This can’t be healthy.
Turkle is a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalysis is an inherently normative undertaking. Psychoanalysts help people identify what “the good life” is for them personally, and learn how to make choices that help them achieve their full human potential. This often involves some compromise between individuality and cultural norms. What is “healthy” and what are the limits of the acceptable range of “normal”? These are profound questions for any individual. But what happens when our new cultural “normal” gets out of whack? That’s the fundamental question posed by Turkle’s book.
If all the other kids get to watch three hours of Saturday morning TV, it becomes harder for me to tell my child he can’t. If all the other kids are texting continually, it becomes harder for any one teen to refuse to join in. A generation later, there is some structural resemblance to the challenges. But the difference is, the intensity has increased. We have upped the ante. As pervasive as television once was for my generation, the media issue of today concerns every waking moment of kids’ lives–their phones are always there. A key issue raised by Alone Together is that our cultural “normal” is drifting away from “the good life” for all of us.
Of course there are wonderful aspects to mobile and social computing technology too. I was Turkle’s student over 20 years ago, but through Facebook and Twitter I learned that she was going to be a guest on The Colbert Report. Before she went on, I wished her luck, as did many other friends and colleagues. I feel privileged to have been able to wish her well in advance, rather than hearing about the event third hand a week later. I will never be on Colbert, but I feel like I shared a bit of the moment. I can tell you countless stories about staying in meaningful contact with old friends, looking up an interesting fact for my kids on my phone that led to a deep discussion at just the right moment, and more. There are entirely good reasons why this technology is so popular and so pervasive. But we still need to put the technology back in its place–both in terms of how and how much we use it. And that may take another generation.
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