Unplugging the Most Connected, But Neediest Generation


Maybe you’ve heard the buzz: Your kids are practically cyborgs these days. According to a recent study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between ages eight and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day plugged in: listening to music, watching TV, using computers, and playing video games. That doesn’t even include time spent making calls or sending texts on cell phones. They call these drones “Generation M2.”

I’m reminded of a line from Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, after he finishes gutting half a dozen hapless brutes before a riotous crowd of cheering onlookers. “Are you not entertained?”

Really, though, Generation M2, are you not entertained? (Or at least slightly amused by me using a reference to one type of media to make a point to you through another type of media about how much media you consume?)

girls-textingRide a public bus with high-school kids and you’ll see every one of them nodding along to iPods. Go to the mall and you’ll see at least one in every gaggle stumbling behind the pack trying to use a phone and walk at the same time. Visit younger relatives and you’ll probably have to pry them away from Halo: 0DST just to acknowledge you’re there.

For baby boomers, it was “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Now, apparently we’re just down to “Plug in, tune out.”

I must sound like a cantankerous old man at age 23, but the reality is I know it firsthand. I grew up submerged in this bubbling digital soup. Like a hot tub full of beer cans, pizza crusts and cigarette butts, it’s not healthy to stew in there for that long (learned that one in college).

In middle school, I spent long hours IMing friends instead of talking to them in person. I avoided joining after-school activities because I wanted to get in more hours refining my fast-twitch impulses on Action Quake 2. And I owned an MP3 player before anyone else I know – because I wanted something to pass away the time on the bus.

A combination of good friends, high school track and adolescence pulled me out of this digitally saturated existence. But the proliferation of smartphones with ubiquitous Internet access, smaller, cheaper media player and social networking that encourages kids to be online all the time seems to have upped the pressure in the last five years. According to KFF, daily media consumption has gone up by one hour and 17 minutes since the last survey in 2004.

Advocates for complete connectivity have a lot of points in their favor. Kids can use the Internet to get help on homework, learn about new hobbies, and connect with school friends without having to make those annoying “Is Tom there?” landline calls at 9:30 p.m. The problem with being tapped in 24/7 – through Twitter, Facebook or even just cable TV – comes when you become so busy preoccupied receiving that your own thoughts start to take a back seat. You become a consumer more than a creator.

phone-textingTime spent listening to music on a walk down the street, watching YouTube on a bus ride or reading blogs to fall asleep may not seem to be diverted from any other useful activity, but it is: Thinking. If you can’t even endure a five-minute walk to the corner market without filling your head with someone else’s words, what’s going on up there, anyway?

Many of my best ideas come to me while I’m running, mowing the lawn, or taking a shower. The common denominator there: All these activities just force me to be alone with my own thoughts for once, without outside influence. I’ve tried running with music, and while it’s a nice treat once in a while, I find myself returning home with a blank mind, rather than overflowing with ideas and solutions to problems. Sometimes, you just have to let the gears in your mind spin without jamming them up with distractions fed in by earbuds, cell phones, or TV screens.

It’s worth pointing out that a lot of new online media work as two way streets. You can read Bill Gates’ Twitter feed and post your own, play video game levels from a game or build your own, watch YouTube videos or shoot them yourself. They create a less passive experience than TV, and deserve some credit for that, but even these outlets seem to hamper creativity because the flood in the inbox seems to dictate much of what ends up in the outbox. It’s pure regurgitation. How many Twitter feeds have you read that consist almost entirely of your robotic friend retweeting things he or she found funny? How much of a Facebook profile consists of your favorite music, movies, books and TV shows? How many blogs merely repost original content by others with a sugary layer of sarcasm buttered on top?

Don’t cut your kids off from Wikipedia. Don’t force them to call their friends instead of IMing. Don’t even throw the Xbox out the window. Just make sure they have time to create and think for themselves. Whether it’s with a box of Legos, a pencil and paper, or a guitar, kids need an opportunity to flex their creative legs if they’re going to grow into anything more than an adult generation defined by their favorite TV shows, games and Internet memes.

Now I’m off for a walk.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.