Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Technology

The New Media: In Your Head and in Your Body All the Time

Originally published May 16th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

The early days of commercial TV are aptly characterized as “appointment media.” One had to make specific “appointments” as it were to watch one’s favorite shows since they were broadcast only at precise times and rarely repeated. With the advent of cable TV, we moved to “destination media.” Certain channels offered 24 hours of programming that was targeted at specific groups such as kids, gardening enthusiasts, news junkies, etc. Today, we have “always on media.”

A personal experience, but one which is all too common, illustrates the nature of “always on media.” More than once, our out-of-state niece has stayed with us. She literally sleeps with her cell-phone next to ear, which of course is “always on” lest she fail to be instantly “in touch” with all her friends. Anything less is cause for great shame and humiliation.

In a word, we’ve moved from fixed TV screens to small portable ones that are integral parts of our every waking moments, and unfortunately for teenagers everywhere, when they should be asleep.

The psychological and social effects are enormous. Parents report great difficulties in getting their children to turn off their cell-phones, iPads, etc., and to engage in meaningful conversations at the family table, assuming of course that families still have regular mealtimes at which they eat together. When families do get together, parents report that heated arguments often break out over getting kids to turn off their “screens.” But more than this, occupational therapists report that today’s children do not have the necessary core strength to sit and walk properly because too much time is spent slouching in chairs glued to their “screens.”

Yes, we know that there have always been complaints over new technologies that have both improved and disrupted our lives. Thus, when air-conditioning came into widespread use, it was feared that it would destroy a sense of community because people would no longer congregate on their steps on hot nights. Instead of talking with one another, and thus getting to know their neighbors, they would retreat to their homes where they would be isolated. Of course such fears were overblown.

Nonetheless, we feel that something is very different about today’s media and technologies. Today’s technologies are not only disrupting old established businesses (think Uber and Airbnb), but they are disrupting our lives even more. In part, this is because those who develop such technologies have little if any training, and hence even less interest, in human, and especially, child development. Instead, what happens is that the latest, great technologies are largely dumped on society, and more often than not on the most fragile and vulnerable members, without any forethought given to their potential deleterious social effects.

Take Facebook. If one had deliberately set out to intentionally design a perfect mechanism to bully young children relentlessly 24/7, one couldn’t have designed a better platform coupled to cell phones! Ideally, parents, child psychologists, and even kids themselves should have been involved before the launch of Facebook to talk about possible ways to curb cyber-bullying.

While not perfect by any means, enough is known about the history of technology such that there are no valid excuses for not having historians, psychologists, and sociologists involved from the very beginning in the development of new technologies. In the case of cell-phones, the genie is already out of the bottle. It will take a concerted effort by parents to band together politically to push for greater controls.

If you think that cell-phones have bad effects, stay tuned. Even more worrisome are technologies on the horizon. We already have clothes and gloves that are full of sensors that “meld” seamlessly onto one’s body, “sense, “and relay all kinds of data to interested parties for their personal gain. The day is not far off that we will have implants such that we won’t need external cell-phones. They’ll be integral parts of us by literally being in us.

If there are any doubts whatsoever about whether such concerns are overblown, then consider that recently Carnegie Mellon announced that engineers have developed new technologies whereby a person’s skin essentially becomes a “touch screen.” Talk about “being always on and literally ‘in’ one’s body!”

Who’s thinking about the effects, both positive and negative, of such “developments,” if we can truly call them that? If we don’t start thinking about them now, it’ll be too late.