Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Media saturation exacts a toll on life experiences

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LENOX >> The other day, I terminated a lunchtime get-together with an old acquaintance, politely but firmly. The reason had nothing to do with a heated political discussion, though in this bizarre election year friendships easily can be fractured.

No, this was a much more common point of contention. The individual across the table kept checking her smartphone for messages or whatnot. After the 10th such interruption in less than an hour, I threw in the napkin.

Despite this experience — and it wasn't the first time nor will it be the last — I was still taken aback by the recent report from the Nielsen ratings company on how obsessively Americans consume media.

According to the study, the average adult spends more time glued to electronics than on any other activity in a typical day. The grand total: 10 hours, 39 minutes, an increase of one hour since last year.

The media diet covered by the survey includes smartphones, tablets, TV, radio, computers and video games, but not talking on the phone, texting or taking photos. So the actual total may be significantly higher.

The most obvious evidence of many people's inability to disconnect from electronics and reconnect with the real world can be seen on any street, as folks (especially younger ones) walk around gazing at their phones, oblivious to their surroundings.

This form of electronic cocooning is even more disturbing in large cities, where I've seen tech-distracted pedestrians collide or narrowly escape an accident while crossing an intersection.

There's a term for this — FOMO, fear of missing out. It seems that social interaction requires constant digital updates.

This drives me crazy at concerts, where some audience members are so busy texting, checking their messages and snapping photos of the artists that they're missing out on the live music experience, while at the same time distracting those of us who prefer to focus on the stage.

As an Associated Press account of the media study pointed out, "people stare at screens while waiting in line for fast food, riding in elevators or walking down the street. Retail outlets and restaurants post signs pleading that phones be turned off. People check messages in bed before falling asleep, and reach for the devices upon waking up."

The article quoted a young mother attending an early-morning gym class who confessed her attachment to her smartphone: "I feel like I would be lost without it. My whole life is on it."

The survey found that four out of five American adults use their smartphones regularly, spending close to two hours a day streaming music, connecting with social media and checking e-mail, among other digital rituals. Again, texting and the increasingly rare phenomenon of actually using a phone to talk to someone are not included in the usage totals.

TV viewing still occupies four and a half hours a day, on average, only a three minute decline from last year, but there's a pronounced generational shift: Young adults 18 to 34 prefer being online to watching conventional TV, while those of us over 50 choose TV by a wide margin.

In a typical month, 240 million Americans use radio, 226 million view TV (including time-shifted DVR) and 191 million use the internet on a smartphone.

While it's true that multi-tasking may affect the significance of the study, it also reflects an inability of most people to focus on one activity at a time.

In some respects, I'm as guilty as the next person. Sometimes, I listen to music or news while walking in the woods, and I'm streaming a New York classical music station while writing this column. But when socializing, my phone is put away.

The point is, most of us are saturated by media hyperactivity and information overload, to our detriment. Silence is golden, but we've lost the Midas touch.

I plan to try a 24-hour media fast on Monday, Independence Day. Wish me luck (but not via text).

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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