Message from Google chief: Have a heart – turn off this screen

Google chief Eric Schmidt suggests young people drop their screen time for some real conversation, heart to heart. Being better connected digitally isn't the best way to develop social skills.

Frazier Moore/AP Photo
Kerry Washington from the ABC's "Scandal," is shown on a TV monitor as an iPad displays the show page on the social media website. TV viewing is increasingly expanding to a second screen – whether smartphone or tablet.

How apt for the next app. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt recommended last week that we all unplug a bit from the digital screens that dominate our hyperconnected and virtual daily life.

“Take one hour a day and turn that thing off,” he advised the 2012 graduates of Boston University in a commencement address, even as he suggested many in the audience were texting or tweeting as he spoke.

“Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love,” said the man who helped turn the Internet into a must-search obsession. “Have a conversation, a real conversation.”

Becoming unglued to “the screen” will take plenty of pulling, especially for what the Google chief calls “the first fully connected generation the world has ever known.”

Why? The average American now spends more than eight hours a day in front of a screen – and that doesn’t include public ones, like smart boards in classrooms or gas-station advertising screens. For the screen-saturated Millennials, the time spent gazing is even higher.

Sure, many people may think they need that smart phone, laptop, tablet, desktop computer, game console, TV, e-book, or the Next Best Gadget. But guess what? More than 8 of 10 Internet users admit they often go online for no particular objective in mind, according to a 2010 study by the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future.

It’s sort of like opening the refrigerator when you’re not even hungry.

What’s the biggest pitfall in so much screen time? As Mr. Schmidt hints, people raised on multiscreening may not learn enough social skills to function in the nonvirtual world. They might think they really should speak in 140 characters. They begin to “like” someone without really knowing how to like them in person.

The illusion of connectedness is all too real when teens rely on texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other “social” media.

“Kids have much less emotional control than they used to. We see them stumped by social situations,” says Dr. Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University. He and a colleague recently surveyed 3,461 American girls ages 8 to 12 and found that those who spent the most time in front of digital devices are least likely to develop normal social tendencies, such as empathy and impulse control.

No wonder more parents now yell “Are you listening to me!?”

What families should be doing is having more sit-down meals together. Those are the times when kids pick up the nuances of conversation, or how the smiles, glances, smirks, and other body language are part of human interaction. They can learn how to listen without multitasking.

The average amount of time that families spend together has fallen from 26 hours a week a decade ago to less than 18 hours, according to the Annenberg study. And there has been a big increase in people who feel their family ignores them because of too much time spent on the Internet.

For the always-on generation, the new devices bring freedom by harnessing information and a sense of being more connected. But people also need time to gaze into someone else’s eyes, not on Skype but in person.

“All of these connections you forge – the digital ties that bind our humanity together – that’s not possible without technology,” Schmidt said. “But it’s also not possible without you – without a heart.”

Maybe there isn’t an app for that.

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