News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 29, 2012

MARK BENNETT: How much of your spring break will be spent in the digital world?

It seems harsh to give folks a math assignment on the brink of spring break, but wisdom should never take a holiday, so here goes.

More than 16,000 kids in the Vigo County School Corp. begin Spring Break 2012 around 4 p.m. Friday. They’re not due back in class until 8 a.m. April 9. That gives those young people approximately 134 waking hours (or 8,040 minutes) to enjoy their time off. Some will spend it here in the Wabash Valley with their families on a “stay-cation,” while others will pack up the SUV and drive toward oceans or cities or hotter weather elsewhere.

Most likely, the adults will make the plans. As they jot down the family’s possible activities, imagine the grown-ups saying, “OK, of those 8,040 minutes, I’ll spend 585 on my mobile device, 1,503 on the Internet and 2,466 watching television or videos. What do you guys want to do with the other 3,486 minutes?”

Sound ridiculous? Think again.

A report on the techie news site PCWorld.com showed that adults are spending a larger chunk of their day with electronic and digital technology. Last year, adults spent an average of 274 minutes (that’s 41⁄2 hours) viewing TV and videos, 167 minutes on the Internet and 65 minutes on mobile devices, according to the story, which cited a survey by eMarketer, a market research firm.

Not surprisingly, adults are also spending less time with family and face-to-face friends. In fact, a growing number of Internet users have increased their number of online friends who they’ve never met in person, according a 10-year study by the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. The average web-user now has 6.2 cyber-only “friends.” Meanwhile, that same study showed the percentage of Internet users who spend less face-to-face time with family from their own household has grown remarkably, to 34 percent in 2009 and 2010 from 8 percent in 2000.

One of the key researchers in the Annenberg study, Michael Gilbert, recalled a friend who took his family on a vacation to South America.

One day, they wound up at a restaurant in Colombia. The guy, his wife and their two kids sat, staring into the screens of four different digital devices. Gilbert’s friend realized something was wrong with that picture and asked himself, “What am I doing here, 4,000 miles from home?”

That story shouldn’t shock any of us. We’ve all either witnessed or participated in similar scenarios.

For all of the spring-breakers out there, why not give the smart phones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook, texts, emails and Internet a rest, too? There are trails waiting to be hiked, fish begging to be caught, mushrooms itching to be picked, waves longing to be admired, museums and libraries hoping to be explored, burgers prepared to be munched. As fascinating and enlightening as the digital world can be, the real one is worthy of at least a week of full attention.

“I would thoroughly recommend that people take an electronic-free vacation,” Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from California.

Our digital toys aren’t inherently bad, as Gilbert emphasized. For some folks, those never-met-before social-media friends could be a fellow member of an online support group for parents who’ve suffered the loss of a child, or people who share a rare disease.

With mobile web access, questions and arguments get settled faster. In my past years of managing this newspaper’s sports department, we frequently fielded late-night phone calls, asking us to settle barstool bets over who won the 1965 American League Most Valuable Player Award. Now, you can Google the answer on your iPhone in seconds. (It was Minnesota shortstop Zolio Versalles, for those of you wondering.)

Cellphones allow parents to keep closer track of their children.

“It’s so amazing, so spectacular, and the benefits are so obvious in a way,” Gilbert said, “but technology has a shadow.”

People can find themselves sitting with their family in a restaurant on vacation, checking the latest tweets by a Twitter friend they’ve never actually met. Kids do that, and so do moms, dads and grandparents. The devices and networks may appear to deserve the blame, but — like a twist on the old gun phrase — iPads don’t disrupt family vacations, people do.

“The technology is just an instrument,” said Gilbert, who’s studied digital media use at Annenberg since 2004. “It’s parental responsibility and being able to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

So, whether you drive to remote Moonshine, Ill., for those fabulous moon burgers, or walk the beach in Florida, or relax with a book in the Vigo County Public Library, or hike the Turkey Run State Park woods, limit the tech minutes. Check in with elderly relatives, spot your emails once a day, snap some photos, but enjoy the trees, buildings, food and scenery together, using all five senses.

After all, once the subtraction of those 8,040 spring break-minutes is complete, the unused family minutes won’t roll over.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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