Where U at?

Author: Eugene Halton

Eugene Halton

“Where U at?” This was the last text a young woman wrote before fatally crashing into oncoming traffic. Her texting had absorbed her awareness to a point where she was not mentally at the wheel of her auto enough to drive it. How is it that we humans can be so fully immersed in our symbolic lives that we can lose our sense of physical surroundings?

Virtual worlds today are visible as cell phones, video games and other electronic devices, to be sure, but are much more widespread than that. For virtuality is at least as old as the symbol. We are creatures who live by the symbol and die by the symbol.

Consider the ever-increasing rampant “enscreening” of experience, especially for very young children, who spend hour-after-unblinking-hour outside the real world, facing computer, iPod, Xbox and video screens of all sorts. What are the implications, when, for example, 61 percent of babies 1 year old or younger view TV or videos every day for at least an hour on average, as a recent Kaiser Foundation study revealed? Or that 83 percent of children under the age of 6 watch about two hours of combined screen media per day, including TV, videos/DVDs, video games and computers?

At these early ages, children have a biological need to face their mothers and fathers, playmates, other people and the living world. The face is a subtle neuromuscular organ of attunement, a key organ of perceptive, empathic development. And so what does it mean to be habitually displaced on a daily basis from live face-to-face contact in favor of virtual interaction through a screen?

A recent study showed that in paralyzing facial muscles, Botox treatments reduce the empathetic micro-mimicry we naturally engage in during social interaction. The Botox recipient is not only impaired in exhibiting her or his own emotional facial micro-muscular movements but also is impaired in subconsciously micro-mimicking that of the other, thus reducing the embodied feel of the other’s emotional state.

Similarly, I would argue, commercial television alienates children by removing them from everyday face-to-face, tactile-friendly, empathically based interaction. A “good-enough mother,” in psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s sense of this term, is a caretaker who empathically meets a young child’s developing needs. A “bad mother” is one who demands that the child meet her needs. In this sense, television and other electronic screen devices function as a “bad mother,” not only by ignoring a child’s needs but also by demanding the child meet the television’s “needs” through commercial advertising and the desires it instills.

The amount of time American children spend watching electronic media — almost a full work shift every day — paints a bleak picture. It involves a huge giving up of “here-and-now” social interaction that anchors one’s real life in favor of a virtual life of virtual communications.

A Kaiser Foundation study found that children ages 8 to 18 reported spending a whopping 7 hours and 38 minutes of media time per day, actually 10 hours and 45 minutes, if you include multitasking, squeezed into those 7 hours and 38 minutes. For ‘tweens between ages 11 and 14 it is actually 8 hours 40 minutes, and even higher for African-American and Hispanic children. If a child sleeps for 8 hours and is involved with school for 8 hours, then virtually all remaining available time is totally “enscreened.”

Of course Facebook and Twitter have been used for political activism, and even social revolution. But consider: typically these uses make the social media a means for actual public real-time encounter toward a public end. That social media-enabled real world is not where American 8- to-18-year-olds spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day, 7 days a week.

Also, much of the “enscreening” content is commercial, and so these little kiddies are “going to market” virtually all of their spare time, becoming branded in the process with logos as well as with endless acts of violence for boys and images of sex objects for girls. The dynamics of how kiddies get captured by the pseudo-ecstatic button-pushing of the virtual world speaks not only of corporate consumerist capitalism maximizing itself but also of unbounded technological innovation as another agent transforming social lives and identities, including gender. Some people actually call this progress.

What do you think? Where U at?

Eugene Halton is a Notre Dame professor of sociology and author of The Great Brain Suck: And Other American Epiphanies.