Friday, June 1, 2012

That virtual object of desire

The title of a NYT article proclaims “wasting time is new divide in digital era.” It says efforts to give the kids of the digital have-nots access to computers and the internet have had a paradoxical result – they are wasting considerably more time online than the children of better-off families.
A study commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation “found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999” (the story says education is often taken by sociologists as a marker of socioeconomic status). Meanwhile, “in families in which a parent has a college education or an advanced degree, .., children use 10 hours of multimedia a day, a 3.5-hour jump since 1999. (Kaiser double counts time spent multitasking. If a child spends an hour simultaneously watching TV and surfing the Internet, the researchers counted two hours.)”

Let me try to figure this out. Decades ago wealthy countries started to produce an overabundance of cheap, supertasty high-calorie food and sugary drinks, and it needed to be fed to someone. So it was stuffed mostly into the bellies of the poor who could not resist the temptation and could hardly afford healthier alternatives. Meanwhile, the elite adopted ascetic diets and self-punishing fitness regimens, to turn into a new generation of “thin cats.” I would guess something similar is happening now with information.

Back in the digital stone age (1997) David Shenk published a book called “Data Smog.” In it he argued that, as with food, the only way to avoid the negative effects of overconsumption is to adopt a strict diet. The pull of information, though, may be a lot more irresistible than the allure of junk food. My guess is that even the doses consumed by the kids of the better-off are way too high for healthy brain development - so the new opium is not just for the masses. Also, the Kaiser study came out in 2010, so the numbers it provides must already be dated.

Gorging on information, though, may have a silver lining. As kids and young people spend countless hours self-administering high doses of visual and social-media overstimulation, they are probably less likely to engage in risky or criminal behaviors. This may be a major factor behind the surprising reduction in youth crime, teenage pregnancy, and other anti-social behaviors since the early 1990s. I would guess it is at least as significant as the legalization of abortion, which Chicago wunderkind Steve Levitt has touted as the main explanatory factor for the reduction in violent crime.