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Maggie Jackson Headshot

Hold the Family Talk: I'll Have Another... Screen

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Remember the 2008 movie Wall-e, which featured a little robot that saved the polluted earth? In that ingenious flick, humanity had abandoned the sinking ship of planet Earth and crowded onto a space station. Too fat to walk, people zipped around on rocket-propelled chairs, eyes glued to screens, a straw-topped cup of liquid sustenance always at hand. It was an astonishing and chilling movie because, as with all great science fiction, there was more than a seed of truth in its outlandishness.

Well, I sometimes get the feeling that Wall-e isn't so sci-fi anymore.

With the lure of screen-life mounting, we barely look into one another's eyes and hardly have an occasion to speak face-to-face -- all day long. A new trend in restaurants adds to the impression: eateries are experimenting with table-top computers that allow diners to pay online and entertain children (and adults) with games. The aim is, of course, profit: a mesmerized and quick-paying customer speeds through the restaurant faster. Parents get more time to converse with each other, children are happily entertained.

The idea in itself is fairly harmless. I still recall the tabletop jukeboxes that many diners featured once upon a time. A decade ago, we stumbled upon them in a retro country lunch joint, and my children were enthralled.

But as with so many technological questions, the issue is of degree. At a time when we are saturating ourselves with media, the notion of inserting yet another screen into yet another moment of life is disturbing on many levels. Conversation is the bedrock of family and societal life -- and these diversions usurp some of the rare times that families are physically together. (Work by Daniel Anderson at UMass shows that parent-child interaction falls nearly 20 percent when TV is running in the background of life, as it does in a majority of American homes.)

As well, the table-top screen is usually a solo experience, so replaces a crucial opportunity for shared attention. (Joint attention -- sharing a moment of focus together and knowing that you are doing so -- is one of the signal achievements of early childhood. Its absence is a first marker of autism.) Not least, speeding mindlessly through eating is thought to be one cause of the obesity crisis.

I'm not in favor of living off the grid, but a family dinner out is a perfect chance to unplug. It's a chance for connection that was lost on the screen-drugged humans of Wall-e. I will never forget one aspect of the movie: the only characters who really looked one another in the eye, related deeply and fell in love were... the robots. Almost all of the humans lived glued to the screen -- perhaps afraid to look at the complexity, brutality, ambiguity and joy of real life.

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