Men, Women & Children, the new film by writer/director Jason Reitman, is now in theaters. The story, based on Chad Kultgen's book of the same name, follows a group of small-town teens and their parents as both generations deal with a variety of real- and digital-world issues. At various points the film addresses pretty much every parent-child issue that occurs in our modern, tech-obsessed society -- porn use, compulsive video gaming, fame-hunting, online relationships, and more.
When I first watched this film several weeks ago at a pre-release screening that Paramount Pictures asked me to host, I couldn't help but compare the onscreen story to life as many Americans currently live it. Most noticeable to me in this respect was the film's eerily accurate depiction of the current (and continually widening) tech-driven generation gap. In short -- and I both see and hear about this on a daily basis -- kids live much of their lives in the online world, and most adults have absolutely no clue what they are doing there, or why they're doing it. Much of the time these adults don't even know how much time their kids actually spend online. Frankly, if I ask a parent how many hours per day his or her child is spending online, the usual semi-joking, semi-judgmental response is something like, "All of them."
Interestingly, that answer is not far from the truth. Research shows that kids aged 8 to 18 spend, on average, 11.5 hours per day engaging with and through digital technology. Since most kids are awake for only 15 or 16 hours per day, somewhere between 71 and 76 percent of their waking hours are digital. Another study finds that children aged 12 to 17 send an average of 60 texts per day, with kids aged 14 to 17 whipping off nearly 100 texts per day. Most tellingly, this study tells us that texting is now the primary mode of communication between teens and their friends and family, far surpassing face-to-face interactions. This truth is depicted beautifully in Reitman's film, with text boxes popping up almost constantly to show when and what the teen characters are texting.
This digital infatuation is the crux of what separates today's adult and child generations. Whereas most of today's parents grew up in an analog world where face-to-face interactions were the norm, most of today's kids live in a digital world where face-to-device-to-device-to-face interactions are the norm. That's a pretty big difference in the way that human relations are carried out, and it unsurprisingly causes a fair amount of parent-child turmoil. I have written about these digital issues extensively, most notably in my book Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, and it was gratifying to see these topics played out onscreen.
Among the film's most interesting adults is Patricia, a digitally obsessed helicopter parent who monitors every single keystroke of her daughter's digital life, worried that her daughter is meeting dangerous people online. Patricia actually holds meetings at her home during which she encourages other parents to do the same. This creates a humorous moment for viewers, who know that one of those parents has actually been shooting and posting sexy photos of her fame-obsessed daughter (as a way to market the girl online).
The bad parenting doesn't stop there, either. Don is worried that if he looks at porn on his own computer his wife will figure out what he's been up to, so he uses his 15-year-old son's instead, ignoring the fact that his son is even more obsessed with porn than he is. Meanwhile, Don's friend Kent has no idea how to talk to his son about a video gaming obsession that is clearly interfering with day-to-day life. Even the school counselor is out-of-touch. In a session with the compulsive video gamer, the boy explains that he and his gaming buddies get together online and blow things up. The counselor is thrilled to learn that the seemingly isolated boy has lots of friends, and the exasperated gamer must explain the difference between his mostly anonymous online pals and RL (real-life) friendships.
I highly recommend Men, Women & Children to parents and also to clinicians who work with families, parents, and/or young people. The film truly does mirror reality in terms of how adults and kids behave both online and in the real world, with a strong and much-needed focus on digital conflict in the parent-child relationship. It is imperative, however, that this movie be watched with an open mind. Otherwise, viewers who enter the theater with an anti-tech or tech-phobic bent will likely see only the problems wrought by digital technology, while viewers with a more accepting "digitude" will likely see only the better aspects of tech. Truth be told, reality lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes, with generally healthy individuals incorporating technology into their lives in life-affirming ways (for the most part), and generally vulnerable individuals (thanks to genetics and/or life circumstances) tending to struggle in the digital universe, just as they tend to struggle in the real world.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships (coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.