I have a confession to make.
I actively encourage my teenage daughter to watch television. Not Jersey Shore or Sixteen and Pregnant or anything with a Kardashian. On these long, dark winter evenings, my wife and I call, plead or gently coerce our fourteen year-old to sit and watch Glee or Modern Family or even The Amazing Race, just so we can have a half hour when we're all in the same room -- looking at the same screen.
Lately, we've noticed something William Powers documented in his prescient book, Hamlet's Blackberry -- the disappearing family trick. It is the moment you realize, night after night, that all our family members are off in separate rooms checking e-mail, updating profiles or watching online videos. We're all in the same house, but we're off in our own worlds, communicating with others who are not present and who we may never meet.
Who knew, then, that the good 'ole television would become a tool of family cohesion. When I was growing up in the '60's, television was often seen as a curse, spewing out endless hours of mindless pap. Former FCC Chairman Newton Minnow famously portrayed the broadcast landscape as a vast wasteland. My parents and the parents of my friends would shout at us to switch the TV off, go play outside, read a book, play a board game -- anything but sit in front of the box.
Researchers and psychologists have fretted over the amount of TV kids consume over the past 40 years or so. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that children now consume 7.5 hours of media per day, but if you take into account multi-tasking, e.g. texting, Web surfing, e-mailing, listening to an iPod and watching TV, then the total reaches a staggering 10.75 hours/day.
While we are all consuming more media than ever, we are doing less of it together at the same time in the same room. Rather than cuddling up on the couch with our kids, we are spread around the house engaged with our own private iHome of digital sensations, interactions and updates. The lure of watching a particular show at a particular time is lessened when it can be watched anytime, anywhere on Hulu on your laptop, smart phone or web-enabled refrigerator.
One bright spark on this rather gloomy parental landscape is the arrival of the Kinect from Microsoft. It is a motion detection sensor used in conjunction with the Xbox 360. The specially developed video games allow you to interact with the characters or avatars on the screen. You either match their movements, as in Dance Central or run, jump and stretch like crazy in games like Kinect Sports and the characters onscreen move accordingly. Scrolling through the song lists or game options felt very much like the way the Tom Cruise character in Minority Report moved images around on his futuristic computer screens, only without the fancy gloves.
What cheers me about the Kinect is that since its arrival in our house on Christmas Day, our family has spent a good deal of time together, along with friends and nearby relatives, improving our dance moves and boxing and bowling together, rather than off in our sequestered digital stations.
So now, not only do I urge my teen to watch more TV, but I am often the first one to switch on the video game player in order to spend some quality family time together, leaping around and watching "ourselves" on the box. It's time for Mr. Minnow to have another look.