“I couldn’t believe it,” says the veteran San Diego lifeguard. “A kid shouted, ‘Hey, look!’ And I saw two of them with their parents, and I suddenly realized, oh my God. On a day like today, when it was 80-some degrees outside — at Mission Bay! — that’s the first voice I’ve heard all day.”
It never used to be that way, says the lifeguard, Rod Messinger. “Gradually, it’s just gotten to the point where you don’t hear kids anymore. I mean, it’s just silent.”
And not just kids, Messinger says.
“You’ll hear skates going by, adults, using the boardwalk, on the bayside, riding their bicycles, or they’re running…of course they all have iPods on. They’re plugged in. Or, they’re talking on their cell phones. They’re not talking to each other, like, ‘Hey! Drink afterwards?’ You just hear…silence. And this whole scene was after school. There’s the sound of the jets taking off over Sunset Cliffs, and that’s it. Silent spring. Bizarre. Nobody goes to the beach and hangs out anymore. I don’t know where they go.”
Where have all the Flowers of Our Youth gone? Home to computers and Blackberries, every one. The age of Marshall McLuhan may actually be upon us. “The medium,” he famously said, “is the message.” And the message today funnels through the medium of cell phone and laptop data streams, whether it’s dating, dining, or texting in class about the teacher’s hair.
The Age of Disconnect, the New Inwardness, has arrived in San Diego. And here it has come, some say, to strain the ties that bind our society. In his landmark book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam warned that we’re already becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, PTAs, and even bowling leagues. That was in 2000. Now, nearly a decade later, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and texting technology have come in like kudzu plants. They stand accused of kidnapping kids from their parents and from the real world around them.
For some, these technologies bust the barriers of distance and shyness. For others, they don’t make much difference at all. It depends on your take.
How are San Diegans coping in an age where Facebook has become real competition for face-to-face affection and attention? Is it more important than family? Here are interviews with five San Diego families dealing with competition from a seductive alternative universe.
THE MEDIA-SATURATED KID. The Hancock family (not their real name) are two working parents with two children. Their daughter Summer, 18, is studying math at college in Northern California. Their son Kevin, 15, lives at home and spends most of his out-of-school time on his computer. His communication with them is minimal, his hours in front of a screen, maximal.
Kevin Hancock, 15, freshman, ninth grade, is a bright, artistic 15-year-old.
Where do you spend most of your online time?
“On Facebook. I do spend a lot of time online. I come home from school around 4:30. I do homework till about 6:00. Then, pretty much nothing. Just computer. YouTube and Facebook, watch videos and write about life, kind of like blogging, but just between friends and family, people who I know from school, mainly. It’s easier to make friends this way. On Facebook my friends introduce me to their friends.”
So does this make you more antisocial outside in the world?
“Yes. You have more connection with people online. And, yes, it hinders conversation at the dinner table. For parents, the computer’s about work. For us, the computer’s about life, about entertainment, about everything.”
Does this create a shorter attention span?
“I get bored easily. I read books but not as much. I was going to read The Old Man and the Sea. It’s one Dad gave to me to read. But in the end I never really started it.”
Do you get out a lot?
“No. I’m mainly inside after school. Sporty kids and geeky kids pretty much keep to themselves. It’s a kind of civil war, but more and more kids are geeky, and they don’t call them nerds anymore. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Does heavy texting and networking time online make you feel isolated from the real world?
“It does make you feel kinda disconnected. Not lonely, because you have all these [online] friends. I have 50–60 I talk to, not all here. I text with someone in Zimbabwe who I met online. Though not so much now. It was a chat room thing.”
What do you think is the effect on personality of seeing the world through a texter’s eyes?
“It makes you much more of a procrastinator, because [online] conversations never really end.”
Is there any hope for old people who want to get into the texting/
“I doubt if they’d want to.”
“If you ask me if I’m jealous of his computer, yeah, I am,” says Kevin’s dad Harold.
“I would love to have half the time that his computer gets [from] him. His life goes on, he’ll begin to realize I’m not just his dad but his friend. But [daughter] Summer isn’t that way. Chemistry is in the mix. It’s like Summer and I relate more to each other, just like [wife] Joanie and Kevin relate to each other. And now that Summer has gone, I’ve been a bull in a china shop trying to get Kevin to notice me, pay attention, do stuff with me.
“But I think he finds it very comfortable to be electronically plugged in, after school, whether it be his iPod, listening to music, or his laptop opened, or the desktop computer, or the television on, even on some Discovery Channel story he has no interest in. I asked him the other night, ‘What are you watching?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Why are you watching it?’ ‘It’s just…just there.’ And usually it’s all three: the iPod, the computer, and the TV. It’s interesting that his generation does that. My generation was into TV a lot. I remember once we were surveyed in college. They said, ‘Go home and be honest: tell us how many hours you watch TV, videos, VCRs. I was watching close to 40 hours’ TV. And that was scary. I was embarrassed to tell anybody. Today, kids are doing the same thing, but with other electronic means.