“Let’s go bowling!” my son suggested on the first weekend of winter vacation. It sounds like such a wholesome, old-fashioned idea for family fun. It’s an activity that people of any age and skill level can try. And there is plenty of downtime between turns for conversation.
But if you’ve been to a bowling alley recently, you know that this vision of bowling is horribly outdated.
Yes, it’s true that bowling still attracts families and friends, for birthday parties or camp reunions or even couples going on dates—to the extent anyone does that anymore.
But our closest bowling alley, which admittedly may have been renovated more recently than yours, includes a giant flat screen television at the end of each of more than 50 lanes. The televisions, which you can’t hear over the club-like level of music blaring, are playing at least five different programs. You can watch football, tennis, music videos or old kitschy movies like Footloose. The lights are low—so low it is hard to bowl accurately—and there are no windows so your eyes are always drawn back to the screens. Even the scoreboard screens feature cartoon characters dancing after each bowler takes a turn. And if you get hungry or bored, you can scroll through a different screen that lists a menu of food items to buy.
Despite all this, when I looked around at the people in the lanes next to us, many of them were glued to their phones.
The modern bowling experience is a microcosm of our incessantly stimulating culture. At some point, it’s all too much. Even if you could hear the person sitting next to you over the music, there are so many other distractions that it’s hard to focus on what he or she is saying. The result is overwhelming and seems to lead people to burrow back into their own smartphone cocoons.
The bowling alley is simply one of many places today where popular culture almost seems to be assaulting us. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Acculturated called “The Lonely Parent.” I described how my own parents restricted my consumption of pop culture, explaining that their “parenting style seems like a luxury—the extent to which they could actually control what aspects of pop culture their children could consume.” Today, by contrast:
Even if you restrict your own children’s access to television and the Internet, pop culture intrudes everywhere. Why is there a billboard at my commuter train station featuring a woman wearing a skin-tight dress hiked up to you-know-where? She’s crawling across a pool table, legs spread apart, holding a pool cue and looking intently for a place to stick it. Why are airplanes broadcasting scenes of violent kidnappings from prime-time dramas on communal video screens?
Part of this is simply a fear on the part of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and advertising executives that they might lose our attention for one minute and never get it back. But part of it is also the fact that so few of us are objecting to this bombardment, even when it bothers us. I don’t know if it would do any good. I don’t know if the bowling alley would turn down the music or turn off the TVs or turn on the lights if I asked them to. But if enough people complained, they might.
After spending the past several years interviewing parents and talking to them casually at playdates, birthday parties, preschool drop-off, etc., I can say there seems to be a critical mass of mothers and fathers—not to mention grandparents—who are deeply concerned that our public places are not safe from this assault. Moreover, thanks to the proliferation of phones and tablets, more and more of our private places have essentially become public ones.
If readers take something away from the articles at Acculturated, I hope it is a sense that they are not alone. All over the country and in our own communities, there are plenty of parents who are not willing to swallow pop culture whole, who realize that it is not all terrible—nor can it all be blocked out—but that it is our responsibility to filter both the messages and the media for our children.