My 14 year-old nephew got a virtual reality headset for Christmas and he let us all try it on. We giggled at how silly the others looked as they gazed all around, up and down, with that big black thing on their heads. Then it was my turn. I felt myself slip into another world that seemed larger than life, far away, and fantastic. TV has long been providing us a way to escape our boredom and enter someone else’s more exciting life. All we have to do is turn it on and sit back on the couch. Streaming TV shows on the internet take this a step further and don’t let the action stop for commercial breaks or even weekly breaks so the other world feels even more real and engrossing. Now this headset can shut the real world out completely and take you “to do what you’ve only dreamed about.” The science fiction world of the Matrix in which humanity is distracted and disabled by simulated reality does not seem so implausible anymore.
The fact that the virtual action is so vivid and exciting means that many children these days are parked on the couch instead of outside playing and interacting with real humans. They are absorbed in their hand-held devices and sulk when their parents interrupt their fantasy world to ask them to join the family meal. Though I would not consider media to be one of my addictions, I certainly know the feeling of wanting to sit down and escape into a movie. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But when screen watching becomes your life and you find yourself talking and thinking about those characters more than your own friends and family, your own hopes and dreams and goals, then you know that something is dangerously out of balance.
What is the solution? Technology is here to stay, but we need to put limits on ourselves and our kids. We need to find a balance between the real world and the virtual world. Devices can be convenient “babysitters” and the kids are blessedly quiet when they are plugged in, but at what cost? I have to admit that I was very grateful for the games on the phone that diverted an impending meltdown from our bored 6-year-old son Alex during the long drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. But I have many concerns about what consistent use is doing to our children’s brains and bodies (more on that later). We set up a program for Alex where he can earn points to exchange for 30 minutes of screen time (as well as other types of rewards). But arguably the most important thing is to demonstrate by example! Often my husband and I have to make a conscious effort to “unplug” ourselves from our computers and endless emails. The joy we feel when we throw balls over the roof with Alex and fall down laughing on the trampoline is well worth the sacrifice of a little lost productivity.