Parallel Screen Play: Are You Cheating In Plain View?

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I wonder if we’re regressing…

Any parent has witnessed the stage, it happens with every kid.

Your little one has her first play date. The kids get along swimmingly, playing with toys, giggling, yammering. And then you notice something, they’re sitting right next to each other, fully aware of each other, happy to be positioned in the proximity of another human of similar knoodlosity. But, they’re actually not playing with each other. Instead, they’re playing by themselves in the presence of each other.

Fancy kid-gurus call this parallel play. It’s, apparently, a perfectly natural evolution for infants. A stage they all go though that helps prepare them for the more genuinely social, and deeply-engaging phase of play where you actually play “with” the other kid. The phase that sets in motion the cultivation of legends and stories that make life so yummy.

But, over the few last  years, an odd thing has begun to happen…

Parents, grown-up, tweens and teens are reverting to screen-driven parallel play.

Two people, ostensibly in serious like or love, siting close to each other, comforted by the other’s presence, while being completely absorbed in the whizbang stream of bits, colors and sounds screaming from their screen-bound devices of choice. But it’s actually worse than organic parallel play. Because that’s done in the presence of a playmate with awareness of their existence. And it’s something you quickly grow out of.

When we parallel screen-play as adults, we often remain physically present, but are, in every other way – emotionally, spiritually, psychologically – somewhere else. We’ve slipped so effortlessly into the digital abyss, we don’t even notice our playmate. Nor they us, having similarly dissolved into their own plain-view private screen life. Neither person realizes when the other’s left, because each remains physically installed, though for all intents and purposes, they’re brains have left the building.

Just yesterday, The Boston Globe reported on a 2010 study by the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, that revealed:

“Over the last decade the amount of time family members in Internet-connected households spend in shared interaction dropped from an average of 26 hours a week to less than 18 hours. Meanwhile, complaints of being ignored at times by family members using the Internet soared.”

I wonder if it’s time to reign in parallel screen play, to set aside daily screen sabbaticals? Deliberate windows where we don’t process side-by-side, but rather engage, eyes-to-eyes, words-to-ears, soul-to-soul. I wonder if the very thing that’s flattened the world and enabled relationships on a global scale is now inspidly degrading the ones that exist in our own backyards.

What good is connecting with the world if it disconnects you from the soul sitting next to you?

Intuitively, this doesn’t strike me as a constructive thing.

What do you think?


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59 responses

59 responses to “Parallel Screen Play: Are You Cheating In Plain View?”

  1. This past weekend I was part of the very scenario you describe. Our family seated around the supper table, with two of us distracted by our smart-phones. One of them was me. The one who was most bothered by it was my 19-year old daughter. She just wanted to talk to me about her university experience. Hmm. Obviously not the entire younger generation is infatuated with technology. That’s a good sign.

  2. David Moore says:

    This is SO spot on. I’ve actually done this with my 14 year old. Due to divorce, she and I see each other once per week. One week we were both sitting there, side by side, playing on our phones. Her-Angry Birds, Me-email. It’s crazy. I’m really bad about it. My girlfriend and I can sit on the couch, watch TV and she’ll be checking Facebook while I’m looking at the Twitter stream. I don’t “think” it has caused any problems, but I certainly see the potential.

  3. Wow. Jonathan, thank you for sharing this. Having exited a relationship last year where this was clearly visible (on both sides), it came as a fairly hard slap to the face. Knowledge (and awareness) is power. Thank you!

  4. Well written and as usual thought provoking. It grosses me out to see people glued to their devices and oblivious to real live people around them.

  5. Sven says:

    I agree, that the very technology that has brought distant relatives and friends closer to us through various chat platforms, has also pushed the people close to us, further away (mentally). I see it in my own home, where the bodies sitting beside one another are often vacant, as their minds astral travel in cyberspace.

    I personally dislike it. I seem to be the only one bothered about it though.

  6. Mike Hale says:

    I find my wife and I do that a lot! I’ll be on my Kindle fire or Laptop and her on her phone, usually on the couch while watching TV (ok, not watching, but it’s on!)

    I don’t think it’s really a bad thing until it starts to get in the way of people connecting with each other directly. Personally I think it’s nice sometimes to do my online stuff with her nearby, but we make sure we spend a lot of time together as well!

  7. Jo Regan says:

    I totally agree with the idea of daily screen sabbaticals- at home & in the office. It seems so difficult at times to reach for the off button, remove ourselves from a constant source of stimulation and give our colleagues, friends & family the greatest gift possible- our undivided attention.

  8. Alane says:

    Love this one. I can totally relate. Goes on all the time at my house. It just leaves you feeling empty. We all need to unplug and re-plug back in to those we care most about. I think we become used to this behavior and then it feels uncomfortable to really connect to someone else.

  9. David Crandall says:

    Said the man reading this on his iPad while at home: Shutting off the computer now.

    Well written!

  10. Chris Shouse says:

    Wow that really was a thought provoking scenario. It is true though and I do it intentionally because of my life circumstances at the moment. However I know my son spends real time with his family, hiking, exploring and discovering things together. Sometimes I think of that Stephen King movie where the computer screen had become part of the kids head and I wonder about the social skills this tech generation is adopting.

  11. Jonathan –

    Another brilliant insight and at the same time a sad example of technology isolating us rather than facilitating a higher quality life. One of my challenges is to find ways to be more present with those around us in the real world. Thank you for the reminder!!!

  12. John Carrera says:

    This is funny, I’ve actually been working on a blog posting with a similar subject. But I am perplexed by the subject as well. “Are new forms of communication (texting, email, social media, etc.) keeping us in touch with more people, or weakening our ability to have meaningful relationships with those closest to us?” That seems to be the topic (and also the intro sentence to my eventual blog). But honestly I’m not sure if its better, worse, or just new.
    P.S. If anyone is interested the blog will eventually be posted here

  13. I think it’s time we recognize that using our smart phone isn’t so smart sometimes. It’s time we unplug. If digital machine is making you happy, by all means, keep it up. But if it’s not… If it’s just calling you back to the instant connection to everyone and no one, the intimacy that feels good, but doesn’t satisfy, when you’re surrounded by people? It’s time for a change.

  14. Beautiful piece and oh, so true!!! Thank you, Jonathan. I have really had to work hard to start engaging with the ones that mean the most to me right here in my home. My children are my world, every breath I take. Hearing the words come out of your teens mouth, “You spend too much time helping and taking care of your friends on Facebook. What about me?”, hit me like a sledge hammer in the face. I hate to admit that, but I pride myself on being honest and open to help others when I see a need. It happened. I’m just glad it was brought to my attention that I had slipped before the pain became so deep to the one I hurt that it might be impossible to correct. Much love, friendship and appreciation.

  15. Lana says:

    It might be an addiction at that stage. Time for a 12-step program (not on the computer of course)!

  16. Excellent point. But it makes me wonder: are people really present and engaging with each other even without being connected to the world with technology?

    Seems to me, if they were or had been, then people wouldn’t latch on to the “parallel screen play” as much as they do. I’m thinking of, for example, the stereotype of the husband reading the newspaper while the wife cooks and grunting a little in response to her. The silence between two people that’s not golden or peaceful but tense and hostile, perfunctory and superficially polite. The unquestioned roles we play and carry out on auto-pilot while our minds are elsewhere. I’ve seen a lot of that, even in my own totally non-tech family.

    On the other hand, I agree completely that reigning in the parallel screen play is a great idea. And if people don’t know how to connect and engage, learn. For me, I never text or do the screen play thing in any way while I’m with someone unless it’s a mission critical thing or emergency. So when I see others doing it constantly…I don’t get it. What’s the point of being together if you’re with someone else on the screen? Or even if you’re just daydreaming about that person or whatever.

    • Francoise says:

      You’ve got interesting points both of you 🙂

      I agree that we see more and more people being absorbed by tablets, smartphones or whatever tool they might have in hand. I think we can see more of it than before as the smartphones for example will always be handy and bring new information … thus if someone is bored he or she will probably find it easier to grab the connection to the “outer world”.

      I also agree that we have always been doing it and it was perfectly normal – part of the shared time and routine. I remember seeing my parents both reading the newspaper and once in a while exchanging over an article they had been reading.

      I’m not sure that sabbaticals are the right solution – they might allow to give the attention back though – I think that the most important point is to become aware of what we are doing and to react accordingly. Sharing time, exchanging and taking the time to focus our attention on someone else (not only the family but there especially) is important.

      Taking the time or giving some of our time to others is really nice and worthwhile … but it only works if we also give our attention and really focus ourselves on the others … even more when they ask for it 🙂

  17. Jon Chandonnet says:

    Read this, stopped surfing, turned off my computer and tuned into my son before he went off to school. Thanks for letting me see what’s important.

  18. beth chase says:

    I think that this is an outgrowth of the TV culture that many parents grew up in. That is to say, the TV is on 24/7 whether there is anything to watch or not and people are not watching it together even when they are sitting in the same room.

    I was a child in the 60’s and 70’s and I recall that when we did get a TV, far later than everyone else, it was a family rule that A) it was never had the TV on during dinner. and B) if no-one was watching it, it went off as well. That means if you were in the room reading, playing, napping, whatever, you were not watching the TV, it was off.

    I think that another component is that interacting face to face is messy. You often say things that don’t come out right and you can’t take them back. It takes skill. It takes more thought, I think, to deal with people and thinking is hard. Most people don’t want to do it. Our brains are not designed to think efficiently. They are designed to learn habits, routines, patterns and rules and behave according to a given pattern. I think that things are complex enough now, patterns are shifting, cultures with different rules intermingle, rules of behavior are sometimes frowned upon as constraining or too loose, with the result that people often don’t know what to do, don’t know what is expected of them and that is tough. Slipping into the routine of a game, like Words with Friends, or something similar creates those routines, rules and patterns that allow people to feel safe in the knowledge that they know what they are supposed to do next.

    To me, it seems that we need to practice the maxim: Be where you are. Do what you are doing. Be with those you’re with. Be present.

    But for the next generation of adults to be able to do that, we need to teach the children we have now by practicing the skill ourselves.

  19. Wow. This is an incredible observation, Jonathan. I remember the parallel play dates with my twins – and to see how much we are emulating this now is rather disturbing. Thank you for this reminder aka kick in the pants.

  20. Hi Jonathan

    Absolutely! Being present, fully present in our interactions has become almost obsolete. It is so refreshing to read an article on this topic!

    Coming from an environment where I was surrounded with all the latest technologies and all the “noise” from society, I was actually considered “strange” when expressing myself during an interaction. A “touchy, storyteller” is a way in which I have been described.

    Now, having lived across South America for almost a year, I have been exposed to people fully interacting with each other. It has taught me so much!!! People actually getting together to enjoy each other’s company, engaged in conversation, laughter and sharing each other’s experiences! WOW, at first I thought, “is this part of what they call undeveloped countries?” Far from it, they are so much more advanced in this aspect.

    During my stay in Chile, I met a man who has been in the theatre (mime) and a street clown for the past 10 years. He told me something very interesting as to the reason why enjoys being a street clown more than performing on stage. He said, “when I am on stage, I look straight ahead, all I see are the big lights hanging from the ceiling. When I perform in the parks, I interact with the people (through silence), I look in their eyes, I improvise from their body language, there is an exchange of energy going on.” That interaction has helped me to grow not only in my performance, but, personally.”

    It made me think, when we interact with each other, are we looking straight ahead at the lights or are we engaged with each other?

    • I have been traveling in South America since leaving my house in Maryland in Jan 2011. I too have found the people here richer in social capital even if poorer in money. There is more interaction and eye contact and smiles than I remember in much of the US. I think there is a large group energy of fear and control currently in the US.

      I wonder if people do this screen play to avoid feeling this group energy and the cold depression of jobs and lives lacking in meaning? (Cold depression is where you are not outwardly depressed but everything is kinda grayed out and lacking in meaning)

  21. Fran Sorin says:

    Late yesterday when out walking my dogs, I saw a father sitting with his son on a park bench. From a distance, it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. When I got closer, I saw that the father was engrossed with his phone. The little boy was sitting with his head looking down. I felt nauseous.

  22. Carol says:

    This is right on. My partner and I recently instituted a “screen Sabbath” on Sundays and it’s made a huge difference in our relationship. We are both big users of our mobiles/computer/etc. and it was a natural evolution after getting rid of TV & cable. It’s hard sometimes—the conversation muscles have gotten a little out of shape, but we walk & talk more now cook together, etc. and that day is my favorite of the week now.

  23. aaron oelger says:

    I think you’re spot on here, Jonathan.

    Being present and engaged requires thoughtful, purposeful effort today. The alternative is too easy. My wife and I often spend time in front of screen 1 (TV) while in front of screen 2 (ipad and iphone). It takes recognition and action to turn off the screens and be engaged.

    My favorite times are spent with my wife, family or friends in front of a bonfire or on walks, but the easy times are in front of screens. Last year, my wife and I turned off our screens for a whole month, but then we turned them on again. I think we need to find a balance to have screens turned off.

    Good thoughts.

  24. Jared says:

    You’re right on, Jonathan. Great reminder for everyone to stay focused and constantly re-evaluate priorities and productivity.

  25. Great post !!

    …what are we “screening” out?… (real)life?…

    it’s easy for things to get out of control when we’re not paying attention. thanks for paying and sharing your attention !!

  26. Danielle says:

    I wonder if the research differentiated between screen behavior and people reading books together (or as another commenter pointed out, the newspaper). You can get totally absorbed into a book and ignore the people around you, especially if you have a strong desire to finish the story. I suspect the whole dopamine hit issue with your phone and email always delivering “new” content changes the absorption, but I’d be really interested in research on this point.

    • I have noticed the risk of this in our family, so we have rules like screen-free meals, and we are deliberate about taking time to be outside in the garden or at the campground, where the screens are absent. I agree with Danielle about being curious to see research about parallel reading. I am much harder to reach when I am buried in a book than when I am on the computer.

      • Jonathan Fields says:

        It is an interesting contrast with reading. When you read, I don’t think there’s the same feeling of addictive immersion (maybe I need to find better books), nor the feeling by those around you that you’re choosing some”one” else over them, rather than some”thing” else. Also, the intermittent reinforcement nature of screen-time literally creates addictive behavior patterns that become increasingly impossible to break and also start to fill not just what would have been reading time, but every moment and every potential interlude. So the behavior becomes far more intrusive and potentially disruptive. At least that’s my take.

        • I don’t know the specific data of the research, but it makes sense to me that the computer/smart phones would be more addictive and intrusive. I would imagine it definitely has to be connected to the social role that each play. Generally a book has always been, at least for me, something that you take the time out to read and you don’t want to be around the distraction of others or they’re aware it’s not a social time. Where as the computer/smart phones are socially acceptable to have around at all times and don’t take as much focus.

          I’ve started having an “Unplug Day” each week to keep my mind focused and my friends and I have a rule that when we’re hanging out on Thursday nights that none of us have our laptops or are on our phones. It definitely makes me feel more in the moment!

  27. Clare Norman says:

    there’s one other side-by-side activity (alongside parallel play) that works really well, and that’s walking and talking. Have you noticed how much deeper conversations get when you are both looking forwards, with no eye contact at all?

    There are no other distractions (no i-pods, no phones); just walking and talking. I love the times that I spend with friends and colleagues, walking and talking. Much more fulfilling and connecting than parallel screen-play or parallel TV watching.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Funny, I actually try to schedule as many meetings as I can walking and talking. There’s something about it that makes the ideas flow so much better. Plus it’s so much healthier

  28. Interesting post Jonathan, and whilst I don’t entirely disagree with your observations, I have to comment. I know you’re specifically referring to parallel screen play but I wonder how it differs from other activities we do at home in our own worlds and heads? In our house both of us (adults) read in preference to watching TV. (We have one, but it comes out of the back room to be viewed once in a blue moon). Yes, we do parallel play on our laptop and phone respectively, and often – but the distance I observe is no different from two adults reading and being fully absorbed in different books. We stop to share anecdotes or read aloud passages together and laugh, we listen to music together while we read or use the laptop, and we disengage if the other wants to have a conversation. I have no problem with this, it feels right. Do online and computer games create states of deeper immersion that makes disengaging harder? Brene Brown in her talk about introverts, begs us to allow people the space to be themselves and not to impose behaviours on each other that suit only one personality type. If one of us meditated in the room with the other present would we see that as being disengaged or less connected? Or when my husband takes himself away into the world of music swirling in his head as he plays his guitar; so far removed from me that he can’t speak and play at the same time – he’s parallel playing in his own universe. In life we’ve always done this and within a family I think it should be OK to disengage for spaces of time. I agree though, it’s about moderation so that we don’t loose the essential connectedness that loving humans in a group need.

  29. Mia Rose says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but haven’t been able to put it so neatly into words. What I miss most is the eye contact when communicating with loved ones. Something that would have been considered quite ‘rude’ in my childhood (not looking at someone when they’re talking to you) has now become the norm. This is a good reminder to set my laptop aside when someone engages with me – even if it’s just for a few minutes. We have to start somewhere!

    Warm wishes,

  30. Haley says:

    Wow…this is so spot on! I catch myself doing this. I start to feel bad, look over at my Husband and see that he is doing the same thing. It’s sad to think about actually. There we are, with the people we love, distracted by the technology that we have a love/hate relationship with.

  31. Joe Hughes says:

    Great articulation of a feeling that nearly everyone probably has. My wife and I are guilty of this too. But, we are both aware of it and have actually talked about it. When one is on a device and the other wants to have a conversation or just relax, the latter will usually say something. This has worked well so far. As with every other touchy situation, communication is key. I am confident that my wife and I and other mature adults are capable of being aware of this and communicating. I am very worried about the ‘kids these days’ who may not be so aware of it and for whom this is a behavior that is very much practiced and acceptable in this day and age.

  32. Robby says:

    Great synopsis and analogy, thanks Jonathan.

  33. […] as I was flipping through my Google Reader, I came across this piece by Jonathan Fields > Parallel Screen Play : Are You Cheating In Plain View.  In the piece, Jonathan talks about how toddlers ‘parallel play’ (They DO! Don’t […]

  34. Hi Jonathan, I agree that technology is separating us in the home. It’s ironic though that the internet is connecting us to friends across the globe but we’re isolating ourselves from eachother in our intimate relationships. Interesting blog post 🙂


  35. paul says:

    I agree for the most part, however there is a lot more interaction when playing two player games, Wii, PS3 or whatever.
    You may be immersed in the game, but not isolated, there is an element of competition of camaraderie and of shared joy, pain or whatever emotion.
    The internet part I agree with, isolated and alone but ask anyone who’s had a two player game of tennis on the Wii if they were isolated from the person next to you and you wont get many yes’s.
    Interesting points though, well made.

  36. Patty Holmes says:

    Watching my 3 yr old grandson pull out my iPhone and plug into Angry Oranges in a blink of an eye was a jaw dropping event. His navigational skills are so much better than mine…lol. However, along with the thoughtful observations already made, I also have a big concern about the physical stresson the eyes themselves. We developed as humans to be able to look out and scan out into the distance. Now looking at the amount of time we spend with our eyes and head intensely focused down and close, am wondering about all the potential stress being placed on eyes, neck, posture etc.
    Anyone heard of any research on this?
    Thanks again Jonathan for another wonderful post! Blessings 🙂

  37. I recently heard a story about a family losing power and spending the evening playing cards around the table. Next time there was thunder the kids said they hoped they lost power again. Why? asked the Mom. So we can play cards again was the answer.
    Rollng power outages could bring people back to face-to-face play…but then there are batteries…
    There’s a “screens off” week coming up which will be a challenge for all!

  38. This is definitely something that my Lovely Bride have had to discuss, and we make a point to spend time with each other (usually away from home) without access to our mobile devices (put them away, or leave them in the car). It does make for much more interesting times.

    Bringing the camera instead of the phone reduces the temptation to share what we are doing with everybody and make it more intimate.

  39. I think another term I heard recently was ‘digital isolation’ – very true all these people thinking that all their Facebook friends were actually real friends!

    Would have written more but I’m busy playing Freecell on my phone!

  40. Lonnie says:

    This is a part of my daily life with my relationship. It’s like I take a backseat to games on facebook. I knew I was frustrated by it, but didn’t know how to word it. Good post!

    • Hutch says:

      We must be related.

      I have the exact same situation. My wife and I commute together every day. One of us drives while the other is absorbed in what I all the “Facebook gaming addiction”. Good thing I enjoy driving.

  41. Steve says:

    My wife and I are introverts. We often sit together on the couch reading, or doing whatever online, and still feel close. On the other hand, we both agree that there needs to be intimate conversation and deeper connection on a very regular basis. Otherwise we’d just be co-existing.

  42. Hutch says:

    I listened to a book recently called “The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion” by Tim Challies. It is about this same topic.

    When I try to explain the idea that our digital devices are causing an unhealthy divide at home, people tell me I’m old-fashioned and need to get with the times. I guess it’s like alcoholics saying they don’t have a drinking problem.

  43. Christopher says:

    Technology has a place, but not at the expense of reality.

  44. […] Johnathan Fields is a passionate writer who frequently has a perspective that grabs my attention.  During a week where “Google Glasses” have been covered on our local radio shows, I was particularly struck by his questions about whether or not we need to take deliberate breaks from our digital engagement. […]

  45. That is so funny, I distinctly remember a few years back going to a restaurant and watching a couple eat their entire dinner across from each other without saying a word, but rather engrossed with their cell phones! I thought it was ridiculous…but am noticing it more and more, even in my own life. Boundaries definitely need to be set. Thanks for sharing the official name to what I witnessed!

  46. Todd Schnick says:

    man oh man, was the timing of this article weird…. it is a problem if not controlled….

  47. Andreas says:

    It´s so easy to use things like the computer or the television to escape from reality. It definately hinders connecting with other people on a deeper level. I recently spent 10 days on a meditation camp with no form of technology and suddenly you notice how many hours a day really has when you don´t waste them all by spacing out

  48. […] then, I have read Jonathan Field’s thoughtful article about the ways that we allow our technology to take over family or friend time.  I have read multiple articles like this one from the American Psychological Association that […]

  49. Andi-Roo says:

    As with anything, moderation is key. My husband & I both work on my blog from our separate laptops, so we often engage in this “parallel play”. However, we also take breaks together & discuss our respective progress. And when my hubz goes to work, we check in with each other throughout the day, so I think technology has actually deepened our relationship as it has allowed us a point of mutual interest & allowed for additional means of communication.

    However, I have noticed our little one taking advantage of screen time & wanting to play video games or watch TV way more than is healthy. So while technology stuff works for us, it’s not setting the best example. We must learn a way to teach her self-control until she’s able to relegate technology to its appropriate place: as a tool, not a replacement for living.

    As introverts, we all enjoy being able to entertain ourselves in our own little geeky corners. The hard part is coming out of our shells & maintaining relationships in the physical present.

  50. […] Jonathan Fields:  […]