Screen wars: parents v children

It’s a permanent battle: children glued to devices while adults try to turn them off. But what are we really worried about?

December 16, 2016

The other day, I did something that is, apparently, not done: I brought my seven-year-old and his friend to a playground while they were hunting for Pokémon on an iPhone. A strong ripple of disapproval ran through assorted benched parents, so strong, in fact, it reminded me of the time my four-year-old daughter taught a group of school friends how to smoke pretend cigarettes.

The mothers, stylishly slouchy (this is Brooklyn), were horrified that I would bring this sort of mind-corrupting technology into the sanctuary of the playground. Their boys were doing wholesome things with balls and scooters and mine was holding a phone, looking at the world through the screen, hunting for small creatures dangling off the jungle gym.

As the afternoon light dwindled, I couldn’t help but notice that these moms were themselves glued to their phones, scrolling through Instagram, probably looking at photos of other people’s children doing wholesome things such as apple picking, boating and picturesquely painting their bodies on porches in Maine.

I looked at the children running up the slide and sliding down the slide over and over, and wondered if what my kid was doing was really that much more inane or pernicious.

Was I wrong to have succumbed to the seductions of Pokémon Go? Is it so bad to enliven a trip to the market with the chance of capturing a small beast with three pineapples for a head?

In a way, these games do what kids have done from time immemorial; impose a more vivid or magical world on to the drab one that adults are constantly foisting on them.

This is the premise behind Narnia, Harry Potter, creature chasing, superhero sparring, dress-up games, fort building.

The intriguing and mischievous Pokémon, superimposed on supermarket shelves, hanging off the roofs of cars, are part of an elaborate fantasy world. The phrase “augmented reality” itself suggests a promising heightening of excitement, a stepping up of the glorious.

I’ve been noticing that some of the parents of my son’s friends refuse to let their kids play Pokémon Go or Minecraft, and are mystified by or politely disapproving of my wanton permissiveness. “We don’t do that,” they say, in slightly the same tone they would use if I were letting seven-year-olds play tag in a needle-strewn crack den.

In my small addict’s defense, he does marshall impressive research skills in these endeavours. He has read every book on Minecraft in existence; at night he falls asleep studying Pokémon dictionaries. He is probably, I tell him, one of the world’s leading experts on Pokémon.

I once volunteered to put out a newspaper with a group of six- and seven-year-olds in a school. For their opinion page, they chose the topic, “Why I should be allowed to stay up playing Minecraft till midnight”. They wrote, “I will learn how to build things and survive in the real world. I’ll even learn how to get a job — you can be a dentist or a hunter, or, of course, a construction worker. It will also teach me how to deal with wild pigs.” (That particular skill, I had to admit, would have come in handy in my professional life from time to time. I have definitely faced down a wild pig or two.)

The piece continued, “There are a lot of things in real life to be scared of and Minecraft teaches me not to be scared of really scary things like ender dragons and zombies and skeletons . . . and how to deal with danger and face hard stuff.”

Minecraft famously comes with no instructions, so children are intuiting, decoding, seeking out information, trying to survive, in ways that, well, seem to mirror the adult world. In any event, the kids’ opinion piece made me feel better about letting the small addict occasionally stay up a little late with his iPad. He did admit to me once that he dreams in Minecraft, which could be a dubious sign, but at least he is facing the hard stuff as he sleeps.

Once, we were reading Harry Potter (I do read with him too) and left our book on a train. I bought it on Kindle so we could continue to read on vacation. “Do you like reading a real book,” I asked the addict, “or do you like reading it on the computer? I like reading a real book you can hold in your hands.” “Not me,” he said. “The computer is more warm and cosy.” This surprised me but for him, and maybe his generation, the screen has a comforting, familiar, blanket-like ambience. He is at home with it.

While we like to conjure a fresh-air childhood, retro and wholesome, like our own childhoods, we may be forgetting the reality of previous generations of kids locking each other in closets or playing other sadistic games. (My much older sister used to say that watching me and my younger sister play was like watching a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids.) We are conveniently overlooking the mind-numbingly boring games of Sorry! and Trouble and the endless treks around the Monopoly board.

Is it possible that what our kids are doing on screens, while less stylishly old-fashioned, is cooler and more demanding or, at least, no more destructive or mind-numbing than the ways we whiled away our own childhood hours? In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently loosened its severe limits on screen time, after reviewing research showing the benefits of technology. Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, writes: “Many parents worry that ‘screen time’ will impair children’s development, but recent research suggests that most of the common fears about children and screens are unfounded.” She points out that people have always been afraid of “new tools”: Socrates was afraid that writing and reading would hurt our memories.

Meanwhile, as I write, the small addict’s 13-year-old sister — I’ll call her the big addict — is sprawled languorously across a couch. I ask her what she is doing but she is too languorous to do much more than whisper a barely audible response. She is, however, able to raise her arm slightly for Snapchat. While I am aware that taking a weird picture of herself, with butterflies superimposed in her hair, and sending it to a friend with an inane comment is not the highest form of human connection, I can’t say it’s worse than the endless hours I used to spend on the phone with my friends, lying upside down on my bed, twirling the curly phone cord.

As Danah Boyd, an internet scholar, has pointed out, hanging out is part of the work of teenage years; socialising is part of learning to be a functional adult. In It’s Complicated, Boyd writes, “Teens turn to, and are obsessed with, whichever environment allows them to connect to friends. Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.”

Our hypocrisy in confiscating screens is breathtaking, of course. The small addict often points out that in the exact moment I am telling him to get off his iPad, I am glancing at my email. He is rightfully outraged that my stupid addiction is somehow perfectly acceptable and even laudable adult behaviour, while his is rotting his brain. His addiction is somehow stunting him, dashing his attention span and perverting his ability to live in the moment but mine is just, you know, keeping up with the office and following political news in a responsible way.

One variety of disapproving mom tells me she doesn’t allow violence on screens. Namely, it’s OK to play Minecraft but you can’t kill villagers or zombies or pigs. That’s easy for her to say, but when I see her son, off Minecraft, playing with a foam sword, he is “killing” my kid or poking him in the eye with the serrated foam. It is impossible to take the violence out of boys’ games. They’ll find a way to conjure it. And if you have the stamina to hover over some seven-year-olds to make sure that they are just “building” and not killing anything for more than five minutes, you may be a little underemployed in the realm of compelling grown-up life.

Keeping your child completely screen-free is also a great luxury. Parenting scolds tell us sternly that if we let them use iPads our children will be obese, pale and with the concentration spans of fruit flies. But if you are a single parent, or a working parent, chances are you have to put your kid in front of a screen at some point because you need to get dressed, or fight with someone on the phone, or read an annoying memo. You don’t have the glorious, luxurious freedom to entertain them at all times, on your knees with the glitter and glue. You are sometimes in need of the cheap babysitting an iPad provides.

One sometimes has the sense that screen-terrified parents are afraid of what they don’t understand. They are clinging to a sentimental notion of the child, without acknowledging that even our own world blurs into screens, the edges vanishing, that children stepping into Minecraft are merely exploring the vista the ways boys wandering a garden are.

We somehow confuse what we like to look at and what kids need to be doing. It may not be comfortable for us to see two boys romping through the bricks of a Minecraft world and taming a squid, but they are just roaming the limits of the new world. And the children playing Lego on the floor, which looks better to us, are most likely diligently following instructions created by a faceless corporate entity.

The passionate moralism is suspect here. None of us, to be honest, knows what to make of the new entertainments, and how deliciously consuming they are. The idea that parents who forbid screens or more rigorously police them are better than those who police them a bit less is just a guess at what is better, or how to adapt. We feel good when we take screens away from our children, when we send them outside with a ball, but are we doing them such a great service? The truth, which we prefer not to admit, is that we are nostalgically attached to an idea of the child that may not be relevant to our actual children.

There is, of course, a fine line. One doesn’t want to live with zombies. But parents who keep their offspring from the preoccupations of their peers may be creating impossibly precious children who conform to our sentimental ideas of a child but can’t interact with actual children.

My Mother’s Day card this year was a sculpture built in Minecraft bricks surrounded by blocky red flowers on the iPad. If you zoomed out, you could see the giant words “Happy Mother’s Day. I love you” curve with the shape of the green earth under a cerulean sky. It was not something I could hold or put on a mantle, but it was not easy to erect, and it seemed to signal to me from below the watery surface of the screen, strange and beautiful.


This article appeared on The Financial Times

Illustration by Luke Best