The Family Circuit

Lisa Oliveri

A mother is doing laundry while her infant sleeps soundly in the room upstairs. She is mid-fold when a cry pierces the silence. She looks over at the baby-cam monitor and sees that her child is in his crib. She reads the dials on the side of the monitor: Vital Signs: normal. Diaper moisture level: 0. Minutes since last feeding: 136. Sighing, she reaches over and clicks three buttons, and resumes her work. Upstairs the crib starts to rock gently, as a nearby stereo plays a recording of his mother's voice singing, and a mechanical arm holding a bottle reaches in and holds the bottle for the baby to grasp. The machine retreats and the baby is lulled back into slumber without his mother having to move an inch or touch him.

The scenario may seem exaggerated—unlikely in our own time, yet not unforeseeable in the future. Our era has become so obsessed with technology and its time-saving wonders that quality time itself is taking a backseat to efficiency, destroying what is essentially the human experience. Time used to be the feature by which a family's strength was measured: the more time you spent with your children, the closer you were. Families once gathered around a dinner table in talkative interaction. But now dinner conversation is being silenced as technology takes a permanent seat at the American family's dinner table.

There is no age or gender group excluded from the target practice of the technology market. Everyone from infants to grandparents is not only involved, but subject to the increasing dependency on technology to keep family life running smoothly. The once low-cost "quality family time" has given way to a thousand-dollar cycle of expenses to keep every member of the family in touch and up-to-date. At the beginning of the 20th century, the American family was relatively untainted by technology. One rotation around Walt Disney World's Carousel of Progress leaves you exiting the park believing technology has been the saving grace of the American Family over the years, and that it holds in store "a great big beautiful tomorrow." That tomorrow is here, and looking among the ruins of what remains of the American family, we see the effects of technology are not what were expected. Technology disguises itself as the modern miracle, infiltrating our lives on a daily basis, coming between those we love and restructuring our social realities.

Mothers and fathers are entirely dependent on machines to care for their newborn children. In infancy, baby monitors allow parents to listen in on their sleeping angels no matter where they are in the house. As children get older, however, it gets increasingly difficult to know where they are. The technology industry is taking advantage of this opportunity and supplying families with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to keep a proverbial eye on their loved ones. One such company, Wherify Wireless, Inc. (formerly World Tracking Technologies), is a developer of location products. They have just put on the market the GPS Personal Locator, a device enabling parents to keep a close watch over their children 24 hours a day. It is an instrument resembling a wristwatch that allows the wearer to be located instantly, within a few feet, via website or toll-free number. It is a combination of satellite and digital cellular phone technology. The device cannot be removed by the child, and is "kid tested; kid tough."

This kind of technology is relatively new to the public market. A machine that broadcasts your whereabouts on the Internet should seem threatening, but the industry cleverly disguises such personal disclosure with euphemisms such as "innovative" and "ground-breaking." A product of this nature is estimated to cost $400 initially, with an additional monthly charge. The company's mission statement valiantly reads, "Wherify Wireless is the leading location services provider dedicated to making the world a safer place . . . pioneering the convergence of state-of-the-art enhanced global positioning . . . that empowers people with the ability to locate loved ones . . . whenever and wherever needed." It is now possible to transform any ordinary mobile instrument, including cell phones and cars, into a tracking device. With these products, every single member of the family can be traced at any time.

Curiously, people do not seem threatened by this kind of technology, despite its ability to make public what is, ordinarily, private information. This technological advancement was hailed by both consumers and technology industries. The Consumer Electronics Association awarded it the winner of the Best of Innovations; it won Popular Mechanic's Editors Choice Award, and RetailVision's Best New Technology and Best Product award. Products like the GPS Personal Locator perk up the ears of the many Americans who fall into the category of "caretakers." Tracking ability is welcomed by concerned children of Alzheimer's patients, protective parents, and suspicious spouses. It may, however, be an invasion of privacy to those who don’t want to be watched 24/7, such as a hoodlum teenager or a spouse of dubious fidelity, who occasionally "works late."

Technology also falls in the hands of children during playtime. The task of entertaining a child is no small feat. Another opportunity snatched up by toy companies worldwide is the development of state-of-the-art electronic devices that both entertain and educate young children, ultimately giving parents the opportunity to walk away, do something else, or rest. One such leader in the electronic toy industry has been video games. These games have been around since the 1970's, but not until the development of Nintendo® in 1986, with its subsequent competitors, did they really take their toll on children’s time. In 15 years, the worldwide video game industry became a $20 billion market. In all American households with children, 68% have at least one video game system, which the children spend between 10 and 25 hours per week playing. These games, which tend to glorify violence, take hours upon hours of potential family time, and hypnotize children into motionless, passive isolated receptor units. Even when video games are played with friends, it's quality time down the drain; social skills and personal relationships are sacrificed to the Nintendo® gods.

Board games, dolls, and art crafts are rapidly being replaced by their cyborg counterparts of video games, electronic pets, and personal computers. Julian Barnes of the New York Times says these "less creative, more expensive toys may make kids more passive in the way they play." Mothers no longer need sing to their children to put them to sleep; an electronic crib accessory enchants the little infants while soft lights and music lull them to slumberland. Toys that require children to adapt a "caregiver" roll have changed as well. Dolls, Barbies and stuffed animals are making room for toys like Aibo the robotic dog, and Tamogatchi cyborg babies. In this new world of virtual care giving, children are identifying human emotions with computer chips and wire connections. An article by the Gale Group describes how a boy noticed that his Dino-pet had a glitch. When his mother suggested he return it, he exclaimed, "You wouldn't send back a baby with a problem! I'm keeping him!" This demonstration shows that children's ability to distinguish what is electronic and what is real has blurred. However, the boy's bond with his Dino-pet begs the question why parents don't show the same kind of unwavering attention to their children.

Preschoolers are prepared for their venture into the social and academic world not by their parents' own tutoring but by educational television programs (like Sesame Street and Blue's Clues), which are praised by parents, schools and developmental psychologists nationwide. Nevertheless, where there is a television with PBS, there is a television with NBC, ABC, and the WB, and consequently, programming that is inappropriate for children of younger age groups. Since the invention of the television, it has taken its place in the American family as an unyielding babysitter. Since parents don't need to be with their children, they seldom regulate what their children watch, leaving their young ones with echoes and afterimages of sex, violence and harsh language. (And that doesn't even include the monstrosity that is MTV.) It has been reported that the only thing American children do more than sleep is watch television—which means when they are alert and conscious, they spend most of their time sitting, motionless, watching passively.

It seems TV is a tool in the socialization—or de-socialization—of today's youth, as human social skills and family communication lose their pedagogical influence. In 1950, only 10% of American homes had a television. Today, 99% of families have a television, which is more than have a phone. According to the National Television Violence Study, 54% of American children have a television set in their bedrooms, which means that even when they are home, they are not necessarily with their families. In fact, 55% of children interviewed said they enjoy watching television alone or with a friend, but not with their families. Even time spent watching with the family is hardly quality time. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, "Entertainment on the television takes the time at home that had traditionally been spent interacting with family members, and makes it a time where an entire family sits together in human silence and stares at a piece of glass."

Computers, too, have taken over the American household, changing the way family members interact. The Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society conducted a survey in which people who use the Internet regularly reported its effects on their social lives. One third of participants admitted that regular Internet use has significantly reduced time with their friends and family. In 1996, Lexmark International, a printing company, conducted a survey of 1,000 PC-owning households entitled the "Computing and the American Family." The survey boldly claims that "Computer Units Give Families Quality Time Together!" According to it, 74% of families agree that the computer facilitates keeping in touch with other family members and about 16% of parents log at least five hours a week sitting at the screen with their child. The only way this statement will carry its weight is if we pretend quality family time is emailing a summary of the week's events to your spouse as he works overtime in another state. My willing suspension of disbelief does not stretch that far. Renowned developmental psychologist David Elkind makes it clear that he believes computers are harmful to the family structure. "It is hard to deny the increased isolation and decreased social interaction . . . as an ever more serious side effect is the [computer's] harmful impact upon the parent-child relationship."

Technology has also affected the way families spend time together. When San Jose State University asked people what made them a family, the answer almost always referred to "doing things together." This implies that the family is not only a natural unit that simply exists, but one defined by action and activity. Vacation was once the ultimate get-away from the technological stresses of everyday home and work life, a time for families to reunite and bond for a week of fun. Now, even the traditional Sunday drive to Grandma's house is impossible without the built-in TV and VCR that come standard in many popular SUVs. On a typical modern vacation, Dad is plugged into his office network, mom is on the cell phone, the college student is typing a term paper on her laptop, and the kids thumb away furiously at the latest GameBoy™ challenge. Gone are the days of Scrabble and Go Fish, now mere shadows of nostalgia. For the first time, more than half of all vacation trips consist of no more than five nights away from home, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

Technology decreases familial interaction and breaks vital social bonds. When children are alienated from parents, the foundation for healthy family relationships is compromised. There is less human contact between parents and children, which is vital to healthy emotional and mental growth. Reading time is replaced by TV time. With microwave technology, even the once-cherished family dinner is fading to a distant memory. Microwaves were initially a way for families to spend less time preparing dinner, and more time eating it. Yet today, home cooked meals are being sacrificed in the name of efficiency, as food can be prepared in less than three minutes in the microwave. These devices, which can be operated by children sans parental guidance, create meals that can be eaten in less than 10 minutes in front of the television, thus eradicating the traditional family dinner, which was one of the only times families could unite and talk.

Technology also has changed the way people and families define themselves. Robert Kraut, a professor of social psychology at Carnegie Mellon, notes, "Families increasingly view themselves as management functions, just as they would with technology." Families, in this sense, become like programs. When familial functioning fails, counselors and psychologists serve as specialists to fix the problem. Any family time that is spent together has to be scheduled and programmed into the week's timetable. Each member assumes a function; bringing home income, providing emotional support, shopping for sustenance. When people seek romantic interests through online websites, they identify themselves as nothing more than a list of character data, made compatible with others through search engines. As our dependence on technology develops, it is becoming increasingly difficult to dissociate ourselves from its taxonomy.

Americans, however, don't see this locomotive of dehumanization barreling towards them. They are so enamored with technology and its promises to yield positive changes that they get lost in the hoopla of the media's technology hype—quickly losing sight of basic human ideals. Billions upon billions of dollars are given to companies to provide Americans with the latest advancement in communication and entertainment technologies, which seem only to put more air between them and the ones they love.

The want for technology has mutated into a need. American families have caught themselves in a vicious cycle of modernization and consumerism, trying to keep up with the demands of being a 21st century family. The more technologies advance, the less need there is for the nuclear family to be together physically. Children are spending more time playing video games, watching TV and being on the computer and less time talking to their parents. Teaching morals and ethics is now the responsibility of Sesame Street characters. Parents do not need to play games with their children for hours; video games are tireless opponents. Grandparents with Alzheimer's disease can be tracked via website; there is no need to visit or call. Meals are microwaved in seconds; now everyone can eat alone, at his or her own convenience. As Mary Pipher, author and clinical psychologist puts it, "families are disintegrating in the wake of technology."

Truth is, although technology provides convenient shortcuts and temporary pleasures in everyday life, it should not override the importance of spending time with our children, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. Bonds you have with your family members affect every relationship you will ever have in your lifetime. The American Psychological Association believes there is a tendency for people to over-identify with our mechanically and technologically driven environment—to "forget that they are human." Dr. Allen Kanner comments, "Only without technology can you begin to reclaim the capacity to connect with other people." In this digital age, it is imperative that the American family look beyond the song and dance of the technology industry, and focus the time and energy on the quality of human relationships that need to improve—or, if you will, upgrade.

 

 

Bibliography

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Sneed, C., and Runco, M. A. "The beliefs adults and children hold about television and video games." The Journal of Psychology vol. 126 n. 3, 273-84.

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Editor's Note: Some of the web addresses are no longer functional.