Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SEX and the small screen

Tablets, smartphones push the limits of what is acceptable behaviour in public

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TORONTO -- There was nothing comfortable about Tanis Miller's recent flight home to Edmonton, crammed as she was into a middle seat in economy, grappling for armrests with a "strange" adolescent and window-gazing middle-aged man while a restless child a row behind kicked away at her seat like a pint-sized Pele.

Then, somehow, the in-flight entertainment system threatened to take the discomfort up a notch.

See, Miller had selected Black Swan, and expected an escapist joy with an Oscar-winning pedigree. She perhaps didn't expect the highly suggestive love scene between stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis that was soon flickering inches from her eyes -- and, as it turns out, the eyes of her two prying, underage flight neighbours.

She knew it wasn't necessarily appropriate content for the kids. She also didn't really care.

"Oh, that awkward moment where everyone is staring at you because the sex scene is on," Miller said with a boisterous laugh during a recent telephone interview.

"I didn't know what to do. So I just kept watching it. That's what I did."

In fact, the public preponderance of iPads, tablets, laptops and smartphones has led us to a relatively uncharted realm of etiquette -- is it socially acceptable to watch R-rated, adult-oriented material on a screen in public, particularly when children are around?

Jackie Gamble, a flight attendant with a Canadian airline, says it's not uncommon to see passengers indulging in some risqué material while soaring through the sky.

"You see people watching things and you're like: 'Whoa,' " she said, noting, however, that she'd never seen anyone watching "full-out porn."

Miller, a mother of three who maintains an award-winning blog about her adventures in parenting at theredneckmommy.com, says it's simply no one else's business what she watches, so long as she's wearing earphones.

Mother of two Julie Harrison -- whose Coffee With Julie blog is published at julieharrison.ca -- is similarly tolerant of other people's viewing habits, assuming the content isn't extreme.

"If it's on your laptop/iPad and you're listening to headphones... well, too bad, so sad, for the children's innocence," she wrote in an email.

"Personally, if it was me, I would be too self-conscious and wouldn't even consider watching adult material when children are around. But I can't hold someone else to the same standard."

But other parents disagree, arguing it's simply common sense not to watch potentially graphic material in a public space.

"I hate to put the onus on everybody to look out for my kids or to meet my standards, but (some) things are so explicit," said Newfoundland-raised mother of three Kyran Pittman, whose memoir Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life was released in 2011.

"I don't want to be a prude or anything about this kind of thing, but the (new-found) accessibility -- with that comes some more responsibility to think about who's in your line of sight for that image."

Arizona-based mother Sheri Wallace says a big problem is most people aren't aware just how visible their ever-brighter, ever-clearer screens really are.

"You become accustomed to the idea that people can't see your screen," said Wallace, editor of roadtripsforfamilies.com . "Five years ago, screens were crappy, and so you couldn't see from the first-class seat sitting next to you. But now, you can see all types of information.

"I mean, I see a lot of people who are sexting back and forth with their girlfriends -- your phone even, is really readable."

And, some parents say, these devices are especially captivating to children.

Toronto dad Jason Graham has sons aged six and 10 who are drawn to bright, colourful screens "like flies to sugar"

And if those curious kids ever did find their wandering attention drawn to a scene of graphic bloodshed or sex, Graham, the only father blogger on urbanmoms.ca, says he would be tempted to speak up.

"If there was glaringly questionable content happening and my kid was standing there hovering over (it), I might be inclined to tap that person on the shoulder and say, 'Maybe this is not a good time to be watching that.' "

But some would argue eavesdropping on someone else's entertainment is a lapse of manners more severe than watching an adult show on a personal gadget.

"It is so socially unacceptable to look at somebody's screen when they're writing... and I think it extends to media of any sort on the screen as well," said Miller.

"We're in a new digital age -- teach your kid some digital manners... Teach your kids how not to be peeping toms."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2012 A2

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