David Hoppe

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:: An iPad of one’s own

The new quiet

by David Hoppe

I was at a family gathering on Memorial Day. Amidst the old-timers and the middle-aged were a couple of what are now called Tweens, a pair of brothers on the cusp between middle and high school, that place where a kid’s metabolism resembles nothing so much as a bent chord played on an electric guitar.

While we fogies sat around the livingroom, sipping pale drinks and relating oft-told stories of ancestral exploits and medical misadventure, the brothers took seats, side-by-side, at the diningroom table. Having thus planted their butts, they promptly whipped out a couple of hand-held devices and, with the concentration of medieval monks, proceeded to bury themselves in electronic games.

On occasion, some wayward adult would venture to ask what the boys were up to. Some form of grunt, unencumbered by eye contact, was the standard response. Finally, someone addressed the boys’ parents, asking (hopefully, I thought) what those youngsters were “working on.”

“Oh, they’re not working,” said the boys’ thoroughly sociable and good-natured Dad. “They’re playing games. Making themselves stupid.”

I’ve witnessed some variation of this scene countless times. I’ll bet you have, too. The pleasant, if mildly excruciating, ritual chit chat of holiday parties, family reunions and the like is increasingly devolving into stony silence as, one-by-one, each person in the room takes shelter in their own, particular, cone of handheld silence.

It used to be that kids in these situations were seated at tables of their very own. Pint-size siblings, cousins and the progeny of family friends were thrown into one another’s company and made to sink or swim socially. These encounters, though probably uneventful for the most part, could also become the stuff of familial legend, a launching pad for epic laughing jags, hijinks and horse play.

Entry-level socialization is what this was. And if a large part of the lesson was learning not to act too bored by the umpteenth recitation of what happened during Aunt Hattie’s high school graduation trip to Washington, D.C. (nothing you could see), then there were also the first, if halting, forays into the art of conversation with nice enough folks who were willing to be mildly interested in just about anything you might say and who, on occasion, could actually impart a sliver of real wisdom.

If you think about it, sitting around, listening to older people talk is the way we humans have learned to be human for a very, very long time. I understand that, on the surface, this may not always seem that exciting. But we ought to question what is lost when our aversion to tedium makes it OK to be bored with one another.

I was having dinner at a restaurant not long ago. It was early in the evening and a family — Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids — was sitting nearby. All of them, every single one, was engrossed by his or her smart phone. The only time I saw them speak was when they ordered their food. They interacted more with the waitress than with each other.

I am willing to concede that maybe we’ve oversold the importance of human contact, especially when it comes to family life. Stand-up comedians and psychiatrists seem to owe their livelihoods to all the ways we screw each other up. There’s no question but that a big part of becoming personally independent — whatever that means — involves turning mother’s picture to the wall and going off on your own.

But, unless you were a shepherd, going off on your own used to mean being with other people. Strangers. Life was an exercise in face-to-face navigation.

More and more, those faces appear on screens.

Parents can’t wait to get their preschoolers iPads and other touch-screen toys. They hope this new technology will help their kids learn, or give the little ones an edge when they get to school. At least that’s what they tell themselves.

There are studies to reassure them. One, sponsored by Sesame Workshop using an iPod Touch, found that 4-7 year-olds did better on vocabulary tests after using an app called “Martha Speaks.”

But scientific research about how kids’ development works usually takes at least three to five years. The iPad is just celebrating its third birthday. “Unfortunately, a lot of real-life experimentation is going to be done by parents who now have young kids,” Glenda Revelle, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Arkansas told the Wall Street Journal last year.

That WSJ article, by Ben Worthen, went on to describe the Campins, a professional San Francisco couple with a two year-old son. Grandpa gave their toddler an iPad. Ms. Campin says the boy uses it for books by Dr. Seuss, where an app reads him the story, or for games about animals. She tells Worthen she and her husband only let their son use the iPad “when they need to get things done around the house.”

Which sounds to me like another way of saying, when they want junior out of their hair. But who am I to judge? I used to watch TV with my son. I just hope the Campins, like so many of the rest of us, aren’t too surprised by the stillness at their next family reunion.