Once a year for the past five years, my mom’s four sisters descend upon Washington D.C. In between the laughing, eating and drinking, conversation has increasingly turned towards the impact of technology on our culture and, in particular, their kids. This weekend, these moms shared a fear I hear constantly when on the road: they worry that their children are losing the ability to relate to people in what they call “the real world” i.e., offline.
It doesn’t take a sociologist or Internet expert to look around and see that for many teens, communicating online or via text seems simpler than communicating face-to-face or by voice. A report out in 2008 found that teens send or receive over 1,742 text messages per month, but only make or receive 231 voice calls.
Many of the teens I have talked to have said they feel “pressured” and “anxious” when communicating face-to-face, but they feel much more free to get to know people in a “deeper” way online. While online and text communication is wonderful, it’s important to find a balance with our teens. Late last year, a Toyko man married a video game character from the Nintendo game “Love Plus”. While we have seen many avatar-to-avatar marriages in the virtual world, this is one of the first human-to-avatar marriages that I have been aware of. The 27-year-old said that the Love Plus character, Nene, is better than a human girlfriend.
Hiroshi Ashizaki, an author who writes about Internet and game addiction warned that “Today’s Japanese youth can’t express their true feelings in reality. They can only do it in the virtual world.” I don’t think we in America are too far behind. Games like “Love Plus” can be fun, but they set a dangerous precedent for relationships—In “Love Plus”, you, the player, accumulate memories and feelings between your future love. As the character grows to like you more, she adjusts her tastes to you and focuses on pleasing you for the rest of the game (which has no real end). How can our kids, with their own likes/dislikes/gifts compete with buxom avatars that bend to their suitors’ every desire?
It’s important, even as our online and offline worlds continue to merge to take breaks from communicating through a screen. When taking a family trip or having dinner, consider putting your phones, PDA’s and other Internet-enabled devices in a bucket for a few hours a day. When your kids have friends over, have a device-free dinner, share stories and help your kids to realize that they are as fun in person as they are on Facebook. Keep tabs on what games your kids are playing, be leery of games like “Love Plus” and virtual worlds like Second Life. Have conversations with your kids if they are involved in virtual worlds to help remind them about what is real and what isn’t.