This Times series about ruined children and their terrible electronics is… useful:
Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.
“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”
Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.
Here is a professional rendering of a conversation happening between millions of people, a few paragraphs of research and structure that attempt to make sense of discussions that are unfolding in virtually any setting where multiple generations interact. Kids spend an enormous amount of time looking at a type of device that didn’t really exist ten years ago. Among some young people, looking at these devices is the central animating activity. This is weird. Truly! Younger people are cyborgs and older people are meat, more or less.
— Kenny Z (@kennethaz) July 6, 2015
But the argument presented in the first installment is also proudly unsophisticated, and doesn’t attempt to preempt obvious criticism. Lines like “technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction,” and non-sequitur quotes from a grab-bag of experts, tee up the most common and effective response to fears of Screen Addiction: that what’s happening on all these screens is not, as the writer suggests, an endless braindead Candy Crush session, but a rich social experience of its own. That screen is full of friends, and its distraction is no less valuable or valid than the distraction of a room full of buddies or a playground full of fellow students. Screen Addiction is, in this view, nonsensical: you can no more be addicted to a screen than to windows, sounds, or the written word.
This is an argument worth making, probably. But tell it to an anxious parent or an alienated grandparent and you will sense that it is inadequate. It is correct, yes, and it addresses their stated concerns. But those concerns — that the screens are poisoning families, that they’re making kids unhealthy and sedentary, that they’re destroying curiosity — were never really the issue. Screen Addiction is a generational complaint, and generational complaints, taken individually, are rarely what they claim to be. They are fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties. They are a tried and true form of advanced-age self-care. They apply to all children except your kids, who are mere victims of their degraded peers. They apply to the Snapchats and the sexting, but not to those Facetime conversations with your grandniece, who is too young to text and Twitter, or to turn away, and who is therefore perfect.
The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.
Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along. The new grandparent’s dilemma, then, is both real and horribly modern. How, without coming out and saying it, do you tell that kid that you have things you want to say to them, or to give them, and that you’re going to die someday, and that they’re going to wish they’d gotten to know you better? Is there some kind of curiosity gap trick for adults who have become suddenly conscious of their mortality?
Maybe all this makes a better world! Maybe this ends in disaster. Most likely, this state of affairs — the little rude generationally determined and exclusionary hand computers — is just an awkward intermediate phase before something that we won’t be able to talk about easily in these terms. In any case, grandma is sad for a reason. A new technology can be enriching and exciting for one group of people and create alienation for another; you don’t have to think the world is doomed to recognize that the present can be a little cruel.
Photo by Meghan Hemphill