Men, Women & Children (2014) has intertwining plotlines and an ensemble of recognizable characters (played by Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt and Ansel Elgort) who delve into the widening and often troubling gaps that are emerging between parents and children, adolescent peers, adult couples and individuals of all ages with their social media "audience."
In an era when our devices hold the promise to bring us closer together than ever, are they uniting or dividing us?
Research psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen, a professor and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has specialized in studying the new and still shifting effects on today's connective technologies, particularly on families, generational differences, education and child and adolescent development. An acknowledged expert in the field, Dr. Rosen joined NotImpossibeNow for an in-depth look at the issues so frankly explored in the film – which made its home video debut Jan. 13 – and the growing methodologies to improve them.
Not Impossible: How serious are some of these issues centering around the gulf between technology and intimacy that we see in Men, Women, & Children?
Dr. Larry Rosen: We're starting to see research coming in across the board: whether it's kids being intimate with other kids, whether it's parents-and-kids relationships, or whether it's the parent-and-parent relationship - that the lure of technology is taking away from the connection face-to-face in the real world.
How early did the trouble signs start to show, culturally?
Rosen: I think the major game changer was the smart phone, so you can kind of look at when the iPhone – or maybe the Blackberry and the iPhone together – sort of reached a critical mass in the population, which I would say is only between five and ten years ago at the most. Part of the problem is, of course, that we have the ability now to carry everything in our world in our pocket. And the critical part is everything in our world – and that's mostly communication and mostly connection, which is good because we can connect now quicker, easier,with less effort, with anybody in the world, friend or imaginary friend or virtual friend. And so you're looking at a human characteristic of communication and a device that makes it so easy 24/7/365 to communicate. And that's where we get all tangled up, I think.
Of the issues that we see raised in the film, what's the most concerning right now?
Rosen: Well, I would say, for me, because of my background as a child development specialist with an intent interest in parenting, would be the relationship between the parent and the child and how that works electronically. You see it played out in the movie and also just in real life that parents get hyper vigilant, like Jennifer Garner did, got hyper vigilant about wanting to keep their kids safe because they hear all these scary things. But they go overboard, and their kids are way smarter than they are technologically, and so their kids figure out a way to get around it. So it becomes a real strong issue of parenting. And I'm a real strong advocate that as a parent, you've got to take control. And that doesn't mean dictatorial control, but you have to pay attention to what your kids are doing. I recommend if you have kids that are preteens or young teenagers that you don't allow them to use their technology in their bedroom very much unless you're monitoring them with the door open. That you have weekly discussions with your kids about what might crop up and has anything cropped up. I think Jennifer Garner was talking about things that had never cropped up for her daughter, and so they were really non issues. So the bottom line is, you've got to be a parent, and you've got to talk to your kids. You have to have weekly discussions about this because it's all new for everybody. New for the parent. New for the kids. New for the whole world. I mean, we're talking about something that is just flooded our world and completely changed our life in the last decade. And we've never seen a device like that, probably short of the television set. And it didn't do it nearly as quickly.
--And the genie is out of the bottle. There's no taking away the technology. In the film we see characters like Jennifer Garner's hyper-protective mom trying to employ technology as a defense, and that's not a solution. So what are some of the great solutions and middle grounds that people are finding?
Rosen: One strategy has to be to create what I would call technology-free zones, and the number one technology-free zone has to be where you eat the family meal. And if you're not eating the family meal, that is not a good sign already, because there's strong research showing that family meals increase family cohesiveness and the relationship between parents and kids. And so you do need to be having family meals, whether it's dinner, lunch, breakfast – it doesn't really matter, the time you can spend 30, 40, 50 minutes talking with the kids and asking them questions. You have to create that as a technology-free zone. It just can't exist. It can't be in your pocket. It's got to be away.
That is problematic, by the way, because neither kids nor the parents can go 30, 40, 50 minutes without checking in. Sad to say, but our research shows that the vast majority check in with their smart phone every 15 minutes or less. And so creating a technology free zone at the dinner table, perhaps you might want to factor in something I call "technology breaks," which recognizes that we haven't quite gotten there yet. So maybe every half hour or every 15 minutes at the table, you yell "Technology break!" or "Tech break!" Everybody grabs their phone and looks at it for one minute only, to kind of soothe that anxiety that they missed out on something and move on and put the phone away.
Another strategy is to have what I call weekly family pow-wows or weekly family meetings where you start these with your kids when they're very young. I mean, very young like when they can sit up and talk. And you make them very short when the kids are young. And as the kids get older, they get longer, never more than 10 or 15 minutes because that's about the kid's limit. But you, as a parent, ask a lot of questions and let them do a lot of talking. So, to a 12-year-old I might say, "Hey, tell me about the most fun thing you did this week in whatever video game you're playing. Tell me about any new things you found online. Anything interesting?" And then listen for signs of kids not talking or talking too much or whatever. Look for signs of... any kind of distress.
As the kids get older, the topics get more psychological. So a parent might say, "Hey, I read a story in a magazine the other day about a child who was bullied online and she killed herself. How do you feel about that? Do you see friends of yours getting bullied online? Anybody ever said anything mean to you online? How does it feel?" And then you zip your lip and let your kids talk for the rest of the nine and a half minutes that are left. And they're happy to talk if you let them.
Another strategy for parents, as difficult as it is: you've got to set rules and guidelines. And one of the areas that we're finding right now that's really critical is sleep. We already know that kids don't sleep enough. That's the bottom line: kids never sleep enough. There has been a downward trend for the last half century, for the last 50 years, of decreasing nightly sleep. And part of what happens is we see a big jump in that now because of the smart phone. Because of kids playing, saying "I have to use my phone –it's an alarm clock." Of course, I always then tell parents "Just offer to go buy your kid an alarm clock. It will solve the whole problem."
So, the recommendation – both out of my lab but also out of everybody I knew who studied sleep, including the National Sleep Foundation – is no technology in your face for the last hour before you sleep. The Mayo Clinic has quantified that: they said, "If you're going to have it in your face, keep it 14 inches away, and you have to dim the screen considerably." And all of that is because the LEDs in all the handheld technology and all the devices emit light in the blue light spectrum, and part of the blue light spectrum is what tells our brain "Ah – It's morning. Time to get moving! Time to get energized!" And that wakes us up. Whereas the coming dark releases light in the red spectrum which tells our brain, "Hey, you're going to go to sleep soon. Maybe you should start releasing some of that nice good sleepy stuff called Melatonin, and that will help you fall asleep." So if you've got a kid who's sitting in their room, and they're playing video games, and they're on their phone, and they're continually playing these things within a foot of their face all night long, you're looking at a sleep disorder, you're looking at kids who are not getting the right amount of sleep.
And if you don't get the right amount and the right kind of sleep, you don't learn anything, basically. Everything you learn during the day is mostly for naught because your brain spends most of the evening doing housekeeping and reinforcing what you learned and getting rid of what you don't need., cleaning out. There's a bunch of toxins that our brain throws off, getting our brain fresh and ready for the next day. And if you don't get the normal sleep pattern during the night, the normal amount of dreaming, what happens is you don't learn. And you're grouchy. And it affects your mood negatively.
We just finished a study, although we haven't published it because we haven't done all the analyses, but we're looking at college students. And the vast majority of college students – I think it was 81 percent – keep their phone near the bed, either on or on vibrate. And again, the majority – I think it was right about 50 percent – check their phone at least once during the night. Now, if you get up and check your phone at night – well, you could be old like me and have to go to the bathroom three times a night – if you check your phone, what it does is it stimulates your brain to think it's morning, and you've got to get moving, so it starts releasing all those nice chemicals that wake you up. Your brain is still filled with all those nice chemicals, but you're asleep. And what it does is that they battle and, usually, the active ones like Cortisol win because they're stronger.
Have you in your studies found positive effects of technology on these relationships?
Rosen: Well, that's exactly the flip side. And I'm glad you asked that because that's the positive side. In most of the studies, parents say they feel like they can connect better with their kids, easier with their kids. They just sometimes feel like they can't connect deeply with their kids. And the device, of course, for the parents – the most common thing we hear in our research is they just love text messaging because they can know that their kid will always respond immediately. And they know they can find them, know where they are.
What frustrates parents, of course, is that kids don't want to talk on the phone. Talking on the phone is a very low priority these days. They would prefer to text. And that totally makes sense because this is a generation of kids that try to juggle as many tasks as they can and try to believe that they can multitask more than they can. And talking on the phone makes them uni-task or simple task, some people call it.
You're sort of faced with this [dilemma] - we connect more often, we just don't get to connect more deeply, which is where then the family dinners come in because that's the time for the family discussions. That's where you can actually connect with your kid.
Do you envision some sort of tipping point where the newness of the technology has worn off, it's become ubiquitous, and we settle into sort of a new cultural path in which so many problems don't arise from all that?
Rosen: Every technological innovation, everything that has made rapid changes – if you look at it sociologically, it's always been sort of like a pendulum. And what happens is it swings really strongly to one side when something new comes out – in the old days, it took a while for that pendulum to swing. And if you can remember television coming in, or old radio or telephones, that you wanted to use it all the time, and that swung back towards the middle. And sometimes there's even a little backlash where people rebel against it. We have yet to see that. What we see is lateral movements [across] a lot of choices.
For example, we might see that, yes, teenagers may be spending less time on Facebook – and actually, there's some pretty strong research showing that they're spending less time. They're checking there less often, but they're not exchanging that for spending more time with people face-to-face. What they're doing is exchanging that for spending time on Instagram, more time on Pinterest, more time on Twitter, whatever strikes their fancy – 400 million new social media websites, all doing the same. And so, right now, I haven't seen the pendulum swinging all that much. We're still pretty darn immersed in all of this stuff, and I think it's got its good points, and it's got its bad points.
I think that at some point, it will swing back. I don't ever see it swinging back so far that people start saying, "I'm not going to do this anymore". I don't see a strong Luddite movement coming out because, quite honestly, the good outweighs the bad for most people in their minds. And the constant connectivity and the constant stream of information, it's all good for them. To know that they can ask any question, anytime, anywhere, and they can get the answer whenever they want. And so you've sort of got this population that's loving this technology and being fed more and more and more. And they haven't yet reached a point of satiation.
I do think it's coming. I think people are going to start recognizing that it's getting in the way of their relationships, I hope. That's why I write books [laughs]. Everything I do is because I want people to understand there's really good things that technology brings to us. It brings tremendous information and connectivity, but it also can get in the way of our relationships and also of our thinking and learning and processing and retaining information.
It'll be fascinating to watch how things evolve.
Rosen: I think it's really a very important topic for us in this day and age, and I think we have to deal with it as parents and as educators and, as just people in this world, struggling to connect... because that's what we do best is connect.
The official trailer:
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. The film attempts to stare down social issues such as video game culture, anorexia, infidelity, fame hunting, and the proliferation of illicit material on the internet. As each character and each relationship is tested, we are shown the variety of roads people choose - some tragic, some hopeful - as it becomes clear that no one is immune to this enormous social change that has come through our phones, our tablets, and our computers.
Top photo courtesy of the “Men, Women & Children” Facebook page/Paramount Pictures.