Dinner-Time in a Plugged-In, Wired-Up Culture

I am eating a steak dinner, when the hostess sits a family of four at the table next to me — husband, wife, a girl about 6 years old and a boy, maybe 8 or 9.
As soon as they sit down, the girl whips out her cellular phone and begins punching keys, playing some sort of game. Her older brother takes out his cell phone, and he, too, begins punching keys with that spacey, near-demonic look that seems to go along with it. I think, "What’s the point of taking the family out to dinner? Everybody’s ignoring everybody." But then, the husband pulls out his, what, BlackBerry, aka a PDA phone. He stares at the screen and begins punching keys with a gamier game-face than his son’s. Meanwhile, the wife sits, no cell phone, no BlackBerry. She looks at her nails, stares straight ahead. The waitress brings menus. The family members lay down their weapons and excitedly scan the menus. Selections made, the kids and Dad pick up where they left off.
I’m thinking, isn’t this terrible? After all, I recently read that a psychologist, Dr. Douglas Lipp, with the public school system in Fairfax County, Va., warned parents, "Repeated playing of games such as ‘Halo 2’ increases levels of aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and decreases levels of concern about violence as a solution to conflicts and lessens empathy toward victims of aggression." Wow. And, according to a recent study in Lancet, the medical journal, video game-playing habits in adolescence can lead to obesity and higher cholesterol levels in adulthood. The Centers for Disease Control says that television, computers and video games are partly responsible for weight problems in children and adolescents, contributing to an inactive and unhealthy lifestyle for American kids.
But how alarming is this? Are video games ruining this generation of kids?
When I was growing up, my parents worried over my "excessive" interest in comic books — which, much to my brothers’ and my annoyance — my parents referred to as "funny books." Once, I tried to get my mom to read a comic book and to understand why I found them so interesting. Mostly a Marvel fan, I read and collected Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Thor, etc. One character from the X-Men, the Beast, used a word — like cacophony — I’d never heard. "Mom," I used to say, "if you only sat down and read one of these comic books, I think you’d enjoy it." One day, she finally sat down, spent approximately three-and-a-half minutes trying to "make out what was going on," and went back to folding clothes.
Oh, did I mention my love affair with the Los Angeles Dodgers and with collecting baseball cards? When the L.A. Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax pitched, a crowbar couldn’t pry my transistor radio from my ear. I organized my baseball cards according to team and put them in alphabetical order, with a thick rubber band to bundle each team. And I spent hours examining my cards and reviewing the stats on the back — until Mom decided I had "outgrown" the cards and threw them away.
Then there was my Motown music. My brothers and I loved Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Four Tops (with the great Levi Stubbs leading). My parents would have none of it. After Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine and others, musical history — for Mom and Dad — simply stopped in its tracks. (Mom thought Smokey "sounded like a girl.")
I remember promising myself when I grew up, I would attempt to be a little more interested in, and understanding of, the kinds of things that kids find fascinating, and then try and keep some perspective.
American kids do lag behind many of their European and Asian counterparts in subjects like math and science. But blaming video games for the gap fails to explain why plugged-in and wired-up Japanese kids perform so well.
Back to my dinner-mates.
The meal arrives. Down go the gadgets, up go the forks. Suddenly the family begins laughing, joking, teasing, taunting. They talk excitedly about school. The kids sit and listen quietly as their father says something serious, only to resume their light, good-natured, back-and-forth banter.
Meal over, Dad and the kids go back to the games.
The mother and I briefly meet eyes. I smile. She smiles back and slightly shrugs her shoulders, as if to say, "What are you going to do? Kids . . . and my husband."
Do we live in a high-tech nation of plugged-in, wired-up, cyber-connected folks where people no longer talk to one another, even when they go out for a special night of dinner? Every generation faces challenges. But in the end, as with most things, it comes down to parents’ ability to instill a sense of values, accountability, work ethic and personal responsibility. With this, our nation will survive the video game era.