Decisions and Opportunities After the Scourge of Screens


As a father of multiple children in this era of ubiquitous screens and countless distractions, I’ve been trying to recall the experience of growing up in the ’80s.

Periodically one will come across the truism that humanity is experiencing something unique in history.  The quotidian experience of each generation is increasingly distinct from that of the prior.  Sure, throughout history, one generation would experience war while the other didn’t.  Old timers might have told youngsters of plagues that hadn’t (yet) recurred.  But those are events.  The practices of getting through a day and a life were much the same for children as for their parents.

Pondering the distinction between my video-game-playing, movie-watching youth and that of my children, the key change is probably the evaporation of natural restrictions to our distractions.  Yes, we had video games, but at a certain point, they became boring — at least as the warm breezes drifted through the window on a beautiful summer’s day.  Yes, we had television and movies, but with a limited number of channels and a not-insignificant expense to buy tapes, it could happen that there just wasn’t anything of interest on the screen at any given time.  Yes, we could rent movies, but not only did that have a cost, but it required some planning, some travel, some decision making, some interaction with somebody in the outside world.

Now, it’s all just right there.  The video games are vast odysseys of virtual, enhanced life delivered to a device in minutes.  The movies and shows are endless and immediately accessible… whatever you’re in the mood for.

The limits of technology used to push us away, or at least to give us reminders that our time would probably be better spent doing something else.  Now, we aren’t even limited by the need to be home.  Wherever we go, we can bring the screens.  The choice isn’t even surf and books at the beech versus screens on the couch.

Remember when reading for fun could be mistaken for sloth?  In college, I read that the composer Robert Schumann was thought to be something of a wastrel in his own college days, spending time reading novels and poetry rather than attending classes.  How thrilled parents would be, I thought at that time, if their children lapsed in their studies for the reason that they were reading too much.

Across a parking lot from the New Jersey apartment in which I grew up, a tree had grown well above the two-story brick buildings, and the complex’s management had not yet seen the need to trim every branch that was low enough for a boy to reach.  From the top, the climbing kid could see across the Hudson to the greatest city in the world, with its Empire State Building and Twin Towers.

Views can be boring, too, so often I would carry up with me some popular fiction or comic books.  From that perch, I followed the fall of Dark Phoenix; I think The Stand may have come to its conclusion some 40 feet above the ground, too.  And I felt the draw of creativity.  Driven from the house by boredom, I was often then driven from the tree by the urge to mimic.  One can safely read in the upper branches, but writing and drawing is a bit sketchier.

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Do kids today play a video game and want to develop their own, or is the immersion too genuine while the skill is too distant?  Any child reading a comic book could pick up a pencil and draw a rudimentary imitation.  Getting from a gamer to a designer is a journey of years.

I wonder whether even halfway steps are available, now.  Is there a modern parallel to the game Lode Runner, which allowed players to design their own levels?  My friends and I spent some painstaking hours working out kinks that made our creations impossible to win, and even then, the game soon became boring to play.  Even more:  My mother once bought me a book of code to type in games that I could then play.  I tried one involving goblins and knights, but when I got to the end, some symbol, somewhere, must have been entered incorrectly, and the program didn’t work.  I wasn’t about to go through those pages of symbols looking for the culprit.  Out to the tree.

Nowadays, the decision to get up and do something is necessarily more deliberate.  Perhaps that presents an opportunity; we just have to find the trigger to lead our children to the decision to press the off button.  Once they’ve made that choice, their ability to do something with what they’ve done is so much greater.  Information is so much easier to find; productions are so much easier to promulgate.  When learning new skills, the stages are easier to overcome, these days, and the incentives can climb.

One year I drew a bunch of pictures and pinned them to a large box.  Out on Bogert Rd., right off the Jersey-trafficked Route 4, I set myself up to sell them for a dime each (a quarter if signed).  One passerby took what we’d now call “a selfie.”  How might that experience have been different with today’s technology?  Are children still trying such things?  Conversely, is it so easy to do such things that nobody would think to do anything with them?

But what is that trigger to drive the kids out of the house if not boredom?  Based on recent conversations, I’m not the only parent to wonder.