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Digital Entertainment Changing Modern Family Life

Digital Entertainment Changing Modern Family Life

Lehr Jackson, Blogger

May 8, 2011

5 Min Read

Last Sunday’s Style section of the New York Times ran an article titled, “Quality Time, Redefined” (5.01.2011).  It was sub captioned “The fully wired American living room often seems less like an oasis for shared activity than an entangled intersection of data traffic. Why this might not be such a bad thing."  The article featured a large picture of a typical family of four, sitting on their living room couch, each with their own personal screen in front of them in the form of an iPad, laptop etc.  The article looks at the pros and cons of the modern family living room with individual screens and devices for each member of the family in regards to the effects it has on the family unit and personal relationships within it. 

            From my own view point, those attempting to bash this new dynamic in the modern American family home sound like people clinging to an over idealized nuclear family of the 1950’s.  I can’t help but be reminded of the dinner scene in “Back to the Future”, with the whole family watching television together in the year 1955.  While those bashing the new multiscreen family living room might look at this scene with fondness, remember that in that scene, it was the first night they watched TV during dinner.  Oh how excited the father was as he rolled that huge TV set in front of the living room table.  Just think about what that did to dinner table conversation that night.  I am sure plenty of people during this period were up in arms about how TV was destroying family time together, just as a hundred years before that, people made the same claim about books in the living room. 

            In my personal history, my mother never allowed a television during dinner.  Yet at the same time she also refused to watch TV with my dad (he hits buttons on the remote more often than I do on a game controller, and they had different taste in shows).  When people attack the new individualized “intrusions” into modern family life, they forget one key issue.  Families are made up of individuals of different ages, gender, and personal interest.  The idea of shared single social entertainment experiences, which everyone agrees on, becomes more difficult as the number of people increases; as well as the broader demographic that makes up the group.  Just because parents have an eleven year old child, does not mean that they only want to watch rated G and PG movies. 

            A family household, where each member has his/her own screen, does not have to worry about this issue.  Nor do they have to deal with fights over the remote, a classis source of struggle in a single screen living room.   Opponents of the new family living room dynamic argue that even though family members are in the same room, they are in separate worlds. Yet one can argue that this arrangement is more communal than the real situation in the past.  A picture of my whole family at leisure in one physical space would be very foreign from the way I grew up.  My mother would be in her room watching TV, my father in the basement watching a different TV, my sister would be in her room doing whatever it is that annoying older sisters do (I would say talking of the phone, but it sounds so clichéd), my brother would be in the kitchen drawing hundreds of pictures of superhero animals, and I would be in my room playing with Legos.   I remember one time when my parents actually sat us down on one couch in the living room, and the first thing in my mind was, “Oh god mom and dad are getting divorced like so many of my friends' parents!”  Thankfully it wasn’t that, but I do remember how awkward if felt and I just knew one of us was in trouble. 

            So maybe the modern family doesn’t sit together and enjoy the Ed Sullivan Show communally, or play a rousing game of Parcheesi as they talk about their perfect lives, but at least they have options beyond a single source of entertainment.   It has been my experience that when people get to do what they want, and watch what they want on TV, they tend to be happier.  And happy families tend to run much smoother.  

            There can be another benefit to families being involved in their own personal entertainment choices while ostensibly being together as portrayed in the article's picture.  In the internet age, parents have become more concerned (or at least should be) about what their children are being exposed to.  Digitally networked data makes a broad range of content just a mouse click away, much of which is not appropriate to younger audiences.   How many times have there been stories of parents blaming Grand Theft Auto for their child’s misbehavior.  While I have never thought that this is a legitimate excuse for what really is bad parenting (the parent most likely bought the game for them in the first place without so much as looking at the rating or reading the back cover), if the child is playing the game while sitting next to the parent on the couch, the parents at least have a chance to see what manor of material their child is being exposed to. 

            That I feel is a cornerstone of good parenting, knowing what your child is doing and making sure they are not being exposed to inappropriate material.  This might lead to fewer occurrences of parents blaming the video game industry for the horrible acts committed by their unsupervised children.  As game makers, it is of vital importance to understand this new concept of the family living space.  Not all games lend themselves to being played in this environment.  Angry Birds can be played easily in the company of others, while a multiplayer match of Halo, with headset on and trash talk flowing might not.

            Of course, all of this begs the question of whether the picture in the article depicts real life circumstances.  In actuality, are family members today--just like yesterday--pursuing different venues of entertainment within their own personal spaces?


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