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Digital Gluttony

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If you've read the papers lately, you already know how fat we are. The American Heart Association tells us that fully one third of our kids are at least overweight, if not morbidly obese. The consequences to all of us are staggering, as we pay outrageously high health care costs for diseases that are totally preventable. We parents have been admonished to stay away from McDonald's, fight for changes in school cafeteria menus and subjected to an industrial strength "Let's Move" campaign by no less a personage than the First Lady herself. But today, astounding news surfaced of another kind of gluttony that is just as critical, with potential consequences that are just as dire.

According to the Kaiser Foundation, the average kid today spends over 10 hours a day in front of a screen. That number climbs to 11.5 hours if the parents did not go to college. Do the math. Once you subtract nine hours of sleep, you've only got five left. Not possible, right? Wrong. The Kaiser Foundation counted hours twice if you sat in front of two screens at once, something we all now accept as perfectly normal. Really, you aren't living unless you are a teenager texting and surfing the net at the same time.

Here's the real kicker: The author of the study concludes that most of that time spent in front of a screen is spent learning nothing. Nothing. Several years ago, this country was so freaked out about the potential "digital divide" between rich and poor kids that we spent millions of dollars to ensure that poor kids got access to devices in order to make them smarter. Instead, the devices have made those kids dumber, sucking them into a vortex of games, texts and entertainment that causes them to lose sleep, ignore their homework and generally do poorer on critical math and reading tests. The crisis is so pronounced that the FCC is considering spending 200 million dollars to create a digital literacy corps to go out and teach these kids the skills they actually need to know, like how to write a resume, access job listings and upload a resume onto an appropriate site.

But let's be honest. It isn't the iPad, iPhone or computer that makes anyone stupid, whether you are rich or poor. Parents who use those things as babysitters do that. Parents who refuse to supervise searches, limit the time spent online and actually teach their kids how to use the computer are responsible for the widening intelligence gap. No amount of government funding is going to fix this crisis until we change.

We need to think of digital digestion the way we think about food. McDonald's is OK once in a while. So are Angry Birds. Both are fun, cheap and potentially addictive. Neither is particularly good for the brain. Words With Friends? I'd rate that closer to a Greek diner -- a decent meal, good for an hour or two. But neither game is a substitute for what kids really need to learn, which is how to retrieve, analyze and manipulate volumes of information. Just as neither McDonald's nor a Greek diner can substitute for home-cooked meals and regular servings of fruit and vegetables.

Digital Gluttony is a temptation that is not going away. As adults, our addictions to news, games, books, entertainment and porn are easily sated by ubiquitous screens, growing ever bigger or smaller depending only upon our own preferences. But if we want the next generation to be able to do something other than tune out and text, we need to make sure our kids are served portions of the digital world that are safe and nutritious, just as we do with food.

It's time for all of us to wake up and smell the coffee. Real coffee, not the virtual kind.