Does the Film “Look Up” Speak to Science?
Writer/director Gary Turk’s spoken word film Look Up (embedded below) depicts real-world relationships being lost to our infatuation with digital devices. A YouTube commenter says of the film: “This made me cry… Whenever I’m with my dad he wants me to go for a walk, and all I do is complain that I want to stay home and play my games… Sometimes I regret getting my first video game… it made me who I am today, and I feel like I’m too far to go back.”
Look Up has more than 46 million views and the proportion of likes to dislikes is overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, the film has been criticized by some pundits who raise instances when technology brings families closer, e.g., kids connecting to relatives via video chat. There are in fact examples of technology bringing us together and pulling us apart, but what’s the overall effect of our increasingly wired lives? While generally not discussed in the popular media, there’s actually a lot of research that points the way. In this writing, I’ll focus on what science is telling us about the effects of kids’ digital immersion on the family.
Our children’s and teens’ lives are increasingly screen- and phone-focused. The latest Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that kids (8-18) spend an incredible 5½ hours each day using entertainment-based screen technologies, including online video, social networks, video games, and TV. Teens somehow manage to spend another 2½ hours texting and talking on phones each day. Is all this screen time bringing kids closer to their families? That’s doubtful considering how they use technology. A Northwestern University study looked at children’s (ages 6 to 8) use of the iPad, iPod touch, and similar devices. According to the researchers, only 11% of parents use these gadgets with their children at least most of the time. As many of us have seen in restaurants and other settings, kids tend to use their mobile devices alone—unnaturally alone—even in the presence of family.
Research has also looked specifically at how kids’ tech use affects their relationships with family. In their book Wired Youth, researchers Gustavo Mesch and Ilan Talmud sum up their findings this way: “Most of the empirical evidence on the association between internet use and family time shows a reduction in the time parents and youth spend together.” The effects of tech use extend beyond time to other measures of family closeness. A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that teens who spend more time playing on the computer (not for homework) are less attached to their parents than kids who spend comparatively little time playing on the computer.
What’s remarkable is that how kids use technology—whether it be for entertainment or school/education purposes—appears to modulate its impact on family. While entertainment applications such as online gaming seem to hurt kids’ relationships with parents, using technology to study for school does not. As noted in a study of 4th to 6th grade Korean children which parallels the findings of studies from other parts of the world: “The impact of Internet use depends specifically on what children do online. Playing online games decreases both total time with family and time communicating with family members. However, for children who frequently use the Internet for homework and searching for educational information, the Internet is not a medium that threatens family relationships.”
Yet our kids’ tech use is dominated by entertainment rather than educational applications. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that kids spend a scant 16 minutes a day using a computer at home for school-related learning as compared to about 8 hours each day using screens and phones for entertainment purposes.
While research shows us that tech immersion hurts family relationships, most in the US maintain that it brings families closer. Studies that measure our perception of technology’s impact on the family (rather than its actual effect) show that the majority of Americans believe technology is bringing the family closer. For example, a Microsoft study showed that 64% of US parents aged 22 to 40 report that technology helps bring their family closer. Younger parents are even more upbeat. Seventy-four percent of parents between 22 and 30 report that technology brings their family closer.
So why are we misjudging technology’s effect on the family? A mom’s or dad’s instinct to care for their child is one of the most powerful forces on earth. One would think we would see what’s going on around us and act to strengthen our families. I suggest a reason we’re missing what we’re missing is the marketing we are bathed in promising that phones, tablets, and other gizmos are a boon to family togetherness—even if parents are inclined to believe the opposite is true.
Consider the Apple iPhone commercial (embedded below) that depicts a young teen whose phone—at first take—seems to keep him away from his family’s holiday celebration. At the end of the ad, however, we learn he’s been videotaping family moments. As the family watches his creation, it brings everyone together. The message to parents is clear: Don’t believe your own eyes, buy kids more e-stuff and they will be closer to you. Many of those making YouTube comments on the ad said it brought tears, and the ad was nominated for a 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Television Commercial. Consummate marketing no doubt. However, if we are to give our kids the families they need, I suggest looking to research rather than sales pitches.
 Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. (2013, June). Parenting in the age of digital technology: A national survey. Retrieved July 2, 2013, from http://web5.soc.northwestern.edu/cmhd/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Parenting-Report_FINAL.pdf
 Mesch, G. S., & Talmud, I. (2010). Wired Youth: The social world of adolescence in the information age. London: Routledge, p. 31.
 Richards, R., McGee, R., Williams, S. M., Welch, D., & Hancox, R. J. (2010). Adolescent screen time and attachment to parents and peers. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 164(3), 258-262.
 Lee, S. J., & Chae, Y. G. (2007). Children’s Internet use in a family context: Influence on family relationships and parental mediation. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 10(5), 640-644, p. 643; Mesch, G. S. (2006). Family relations and the Internet: Exploring a family boundaries approach. Journal of Family Communication, 6(2), 119-138; Mesch, G. S. (2003). The family and the Internet: The Israeli case. Social Science Quarterly, 84(4), 1038-1050.
 Microsoft Corporation. (2011, November 16). Connecting with technology: Microsoft survey finds technology is bringing families together. Retrieved September 24, 2013, from http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/press/2011/nov11/11-16holitechpr.aspx
 Diaz, A. (2014, July 10). See the 2014 Emmy nominees for Outstanding Television Commercial. Advertising Age. Retrieved August 2, 2014, from http://adage.com