After more than a half-century of worries, warnings and studies about what our media habits are doing to us and our relationships, FCC chairman Newton Minow’s famous 1961 condemnation of the “vast wasteland” of network TV seems somehow quaint.

 

The TVs, computers and handheld screens have since multiplied, enabling us to ignore each other any time and any place. Will we someday envy old-fashioned families who at least used to zone out in front of the same TV screen together, even as the Cassandras of the day prophesied looming social apocalypse?

 

The dire warnings, now a tradition unto themselves, continue. TV is making us dumb, lazy and distractible. This month’s issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine draws a direct link between the amount time kids spend in front of their screens and the difficulty they have relating to real people.

 

Other studies have pointed to bedroom TVs as a cancer on relationships, eliminating family meals and interaction and short-circuiting the sex lives of couples. The more we let the machines into our lives, we’re told, the less room there is for people.

 

Many nights, the denizens of my own apartment (occupancy goes up and down) are firmly sealed in their own bubbles of laptop, iPod and TV, often in combination. Conversation is admittedly sporadic, but the teenagers, as far as I can see, have so far failed to completely degenerate into anti-social blobs. Paradoxically, even as they seem unaware of each others’ presence in the same room, they are often interacting with each other online.


Just how much wholesome family interaction is enough? Sometimes at this age, shutting out one’s family for a bit is an entirely desirable enterprise. I just had to do it with comparatively primitive technology like the Walkman. I wouldn’t be surprised if bygone alarmists decried Gutenberg’s printing press and the creeping effect of literacy on families, with kids’ beaks buried in books and other signs of complete societal breakdown.


The grownups in our household, I have to admit, can easily be as plugged in and tuned out as the kids. Many nights when it’s just the two of us, we’ll notice that we’ve each been clicking away on our computers and haven’t passed a word between us in a couple of hours. We’ll often take this as our cue to pull the plug, go out for a drink, sit facing each other and actually talk.


The time to worry is when you shut off all the screens, turn back to each other and find you have nothing to say.