What Defines Quality Time?

It’s Sunday afternoon in the family room. Mom and Dad are on their laptops. Working, or performing one of the many other tasks that have migrated from the real world to the screen world: shopping, corresponding, planning a vacation. The six year -old is on Club Penguin. The four year-old is tracing letters on the iPad.  The toddler is happily popping virtual bubbles on Mom’s phone.  Sound familiar?

This is the scene in many family rooms around the country (and probably, the wired world).  In yesterday’s New York Times, Alex Williams called it “A wholly different form of quality time.”

I’m not sure I agree. Do you? 

These people may be in the same room, but they’re not together mentally or emotionally. My idea of quality time kind of hinges on shared attention. But maybe that’s less of a given than I think. Our ideas about what constitutes quality family time have evolved over the years.  Imagine the scene above, but replace all the personal screens with books. We’d all look approvingly at the family’s ability to be together while pursuing their own interests.

That wasn’t always the case, says Dr. Lutz Koepnick, a professor of Media Studies at Washington State University.

“If you go back 200 years, there were similar complaints about technological devices, but it was books at that time…The family room filled with different people reading books created a lot of concerns and anxiety, particularly regarding women, because all of a sudden they were on their own, their minds were drifting into areas that could no longer be controlled.”

“Likewise, the emergence of television led to decades of hand-wringing over the specter of American families transformed into sitcom-addicted zombies. Dr. Koepnick sees the personal entertainment device as a triumph over a big downside of family TV viewing: the fight over what to watch.  Now, “everyone has their own device, streams their own films, their own media, so there’s no longer a struggle or challenge within the family over what is it we want to see.”

But isn’t that struggle and challenge part of the point? Finding common ground, even if it’s just a TV show everyone can stand to watch for 22 minutes, helps reinforce the idea of family unity. We have hundreds of channels, Netflix downloads, and the infinite entertainment of the internet to choose from. Shouldn’t we be able to find something we can share?

The article argued that the new technologies are a step in the right direction for family time. Only a few years ago,  family members would have had to be in four separate rooms to do all those things at the same time (not to mention own four different expensive computers.) Physical closeness has obvious benefits.  But could there also be something uniquely valuable about occupying the same space while in our separate spheres? A family is, in essence, a bunch of individuals connected by biology and/or circumstance. Shared experiences can strengthen those bonds. But in a way,this model reinforces something else we expect and need from our families: the sense that we can exist as ourselves, with our own interests, and still feel loved and supported as part of a larger whole.  I might not call this quality time, but I do think it’s just as necessary.

Read Quality Time, Redefined in the New York Times

photo: deapeajay/flickr

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