Nearly 100 million Americans will travel during the coming holiday season to visit friends or family. One reason we take time to make these visits is because there are too few opportunities at other times during the year to actually get together in the physical presence of those who are most important to us. Although many of these visits are made at great price and logistical inconvenience, there is something powerful about being in the physical presence of another person that makes the effort worthwhile, and that has no comparable substitute.
In recent years, we’ve added something to these annual visits. In addition to the TV sets that occupy a central place in our family rooms, we now show up for our visits with laptops, tablets, smart phones, power cords, chargers and adaptors. Three years ago, my brother-in-law, Dan, announced that he wouldn’t be making the 150-mile journey to my house unless he could be assured that I had converted my house to a wireless environment. The prospect of staying in my house for a few days without a wireless connection to the Internet was simply too gruesome for him to bear. My wife and I obliged — we’re now wireless. Dan now shows up for his visits joyfully with three large sacks packed with electronic gear. He routinely brings two laptops, an iPad, an iPhone and a tangle of charging cords.
While Dan celebrates our move to a wireless family room as an enlightened decision, the paradox of what often takes place now when family members come to visit is worth contemplating. At any given moment during the family gathering, nearly every member of the family can be seen sitting around the room staring at a screen. Some are looking at a sporting event on the large-screen TV. Others are catching up on news via their iPads. A few laptops are open to Facebook, and at least one person is usually playing a game on a phone. Despite the fact that the family has gathered to “see” each other, we spend considerably more time than we used to looking at our screens instead of at each other’s faces. Increasingly, as our visits come to an end, members of the family express the sentiment that it seems like we hardly get to talk to each other. We are in each other’s physical presence, but we don’t connect as we did in days past. Could our heavy reliance on media screens have something to do with this phenomenon? I believe that it could.
A few years ago, one of my graduate students, Hannah Kirk, decided to do a very simple experiment for her master’s thesis. She had college students bring a best friend to the lab to participate in a study. While they thought they were simply waiting to enter the lab, they sat in adjacent chairs in a room with a TV set. In one condition, the TV was off but in a second condition the set was tuned to a sitcom. During the 10 minutes in the “waiting room” eye contact and conversation between friends was reduced by about a third when the TV set was on. But even more interesting to Hannah was the fact that the friends in the TV-on condition rated their conversations that took place during that time as less enjoyable and satisfying.
Researchers still have much work to do in exploring and documenting the precise effects that all of our new technology has on our interactions with others. Clearly, our devices enhance our interpersonal connections in a myriad of ways. But we’re still adapting to the full ramifications of carrying tablets and smart phones around like additional appendages. There’s little doubt that when we use these devices without any thought about their impact on us and those in our immediate physical presence, we’re losing some of the real advantages that we expect to gain by being with those whom we love.
As families and friends gather this holiday season, it might be wise to become more conscious of how our use of electronic devices could act to sabotage the quality of our interactions. The late Marshall McLuhan taught us that electronic media are akin to the water that fish swim in — they are so engulfing that we hardly notice the impact that they make. But he also taught us to become more conscious of our electronics and to take appropriate steps to control their impact. That may mean muting the family TV during commercial breaks or implementing rules about the use of social media during a family meal or gathering. It may mean deliberately taking a holiday from media during parts of this holiday season. My guess is that most people who do this will conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. Happy holidays!
Glenn G. Sparks is the associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University