The night I lost my digital virginity, I was sixteen, visiting family in Paris. One evening, my cousin and I decided to go to a movie. Before I could reach for the newspaper listings, he switched on a box the size of a small television that sat on a living room shelf, unnoticed by me until that moment. The screen glowed blue as he typed in a sequence of numbers. Voilà! The desired information appeared in a flash of light that seemed nothing less than magical.
Thinking back on the moment now, I remember feeling disconcerted by the mysterious box—one of the “Minitel” devices popular in France in the early ’90s—and my cousin’s nonchalance at the transaction it had performed, as if pulling information out of the air were no more unusual than eating crepes on the street or riding the Metro, other aspects of everyday life in Paris I had quickly learned to enjoy. Certainly I had no wish to learn to use it myself. As for the prospect that, within 20 years, I and everyone I knew would carry around its equivalent in our pockets? You could more easily have convinced me that a genie itself would emerge from the small blue screen.
Teenagers today, of course, don’t discover the Internet in a single indelible moment, as I did almost two decades ago; they are “digital natives,” born to it. According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids aged eight to 18 use media for more than seven and a half hours a day—and that doesn’t include texting. (It doesn’t include talking on mobile phones, either, but apparently teenagers don’t do that anymore.) As Susan Maushart writes in her new book, The Winter of Our Disconnect, for her kids, “media use is not an activity—like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the backseat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.”
Maushart’s book is structured around what she calls “The Experiment,” a prelapsarian fantasy of returning to the predigital age. What would happen, she wondered, if she pulled the plug on her family’s media activity for six months? Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, she decided to enact the twenty-first-century equivalent of moving to a cabin in the woods: no iPhones, no computers, no iPods, no television. (Her kids were allowed to use computers outside their home when necessary—for instance, at the library to do homework.) “Like many other parents,” she writes, “I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family.” Was the speed and intensity of multitasking worth living a life of “quiet digital desperation”?
The only thing surprising about what happens to Maushart’s children—all teenagers—is the speed at which the positive effects of digital deprivation kick in. Her video-game-addicted son, who for years hasn’t played “anything that didn’t involve a joystick or a mouse,” returns to the saxophone lessons he abandoned, practicing for hours a day and reading Murakami on the side. Her elder daughter, in her first year in college, takes up cooking. Even the youngest and least-compliant, who spends most of the time she once devoted to texting talking on the land line, finds that her grades improve. “I watched as my kids awoke slowly from the state of cognitus interruptus that had characterized many of their waking hours, to become more focused, logical thinkers,” Maushart writes triumphantly. “I watched as their attention spans sputtered and took off, allowing them to read for hours—not minutes—at a stretch; to practice their instruments intensively; to hold longer and more complex conversations with adults and among themselves; to improve their capacity to think beyond the present moment, even if that only translated into remembering to wash out tights for tomorrow morning.”
But we know all this already: from The New York Times’ series “Your Brain on Computers”; from Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic piece (and subsequent book) on whether Google is “making us stupid”; and countless other alarmist tracts. That’s why we feel so anxious about the constant buzzing in our heads. The question is what to do about it, because the wired life can’t simply be turned off. Laptops and iPhones are here to stay. As cartoonist James Sturm, who conducted a similar experiment in Slate, discovered, temporary disconnection is “only a finger in the proverbial dike. One month might be a futile effort—how long until you’re back in front of the computer, incessantly updating your Facebook page?” Technology promotes addiction-style behaviors, but the twelve-step-style tactic of utter deprivation, as alcoholics or smokers inevitably must do, is not an option. Instead, the control we have to exert on technology use—and Maushart’s book convinced me that such controls have become absolutely necessary—is probably more like watching what we eat: a little indulgence is healthy, but too much can kill us, or at least do lasting damage. (Maushart quotes the telling term “infobesity” as a catchphrase for media overindulgence.)
It’s the next generation, though, for whom all these cautionary tales really matter: the generation Maushart’s kids belong to, the ones who don’t remember the unwired life. For these kids, there’s no “Minitel moment,” when they see the digital future blinking ahead of them. They are “the first generation born and raised completely wired.” Maushart’s book makes it clear that her problems are only partially technology problems; they are also, and more importantly, parenting problems. She acknowledges that the same permissive style of parenting that allows kids unrestricted access to media promotes a dependency that is not restricted to the digital realm. More than 80 percent of her own cell phone use consists of calls to and from her kids—usually related to such crises as not being able to find a snack or running a few minutes late. At lunch one day, she is astonished when a friend’s son calls his mother for directions at an unfamiliar train station rather than simply asking someone around him. “My unexamined assumption that more contact must produce better parenting (and generate less anxiety) was just that: unexamined,” she writes. Unfettered media use, she concludes, is like breastfeeding on demand, resulting in an “elongated toddlerhood” that creates a generation suffering from a “global life-passivity that goes way beyond garden-variety teen cluelessness.” In the end, the solutions Maushart comes up with are common sense: family dinners, reasonable bedtimes, regular hours spent unattached to anything electronic. (Tiger Mom, naturally, doesn’t allow her kids any access to video games.)
Meanwhile, the Walden-style experiments focus on what we gain from loosening our dependence on the Internet, but suggest little about what we might lose. Sherry Turkle, whose new book Alone Together is subtitled “Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” writes pessimistically of digital media’s distancing effects on interpersonal relations: “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.” But is a text or e-mail message necessarily less personal than a phone call or in-person meeting? Perhaps different methods of communication can create different forms of intimacy—not necessarily better or worse than the old-school style, but adapted to a new wired way of life. Even the sort of “nuisance texts” that Maushart describes receiving from her kids have an inherent subtext: “Hello,” they say, “I’m thinking about you.”
Years after the Minitel moment, having fallen out of touch with my cousin, I needed to contact him about a death in the family. The phone numbers and addresses in my old address book were outdated; an e-mail bounced back. Where did I find him? On Facebook.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.