I never worried much about the hazards of the Information Age until my 9-year-old son started beating me at video games.
One of his current favorites is an online game called Pillage the Village. It’s a pretty typical game, in that trying to explain its premise will make me sound unhinged. You win this game by invading a luckless medieval hamlet and tossing animated peasants to their deaths from high in the air, then looting their bodies for loose change.
What bothered me about Pillage the Village wasn’t the subtext of cartoon cruelty and greed and violence. What bothered me was that my son was so much better at it than me.
He grasped the peculiar logic of the game, learned quickly what he needed to do to advance to the next level and patiently — maybe a little patronizingly — tried to explain it all to me. (“Um, you can’t move trees, Dad.”)
I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s a digital native, if you’ll excuse the buzzword, part of a generation growing up immersed in information technology. He’s never known a world without texting and tweeting and streaming video. Around laptops and game systems, he is possessed of a sauntering confidence that is remarkable to see. He can solve problems I can’t even articulate.
All of which, to my antique way of thinking, inverts the natural order of things. I grew up hoping that someday I might be able to beat my father in a game of checkers or a footrace. But the digital world is different. Screens — laptops and iPhones and the Xbox 360 — are my son’s turf. I don’t stand a chance there. It might be a few years before he is able to take me in driveway one-on-one, but he seems to have emerged from the womb with an invincible talent for digital navigation.
I don’t think I’m the only parent who is ambivalent about his child’s affinity for the world of screens. It’s hard, if you’re of a certain age and predisposed to a certain level of parental apprehension, not to be a little alarmed at the prospect of letting your kid loose in the digital landscape. The timing of the recent explosion of digital technologies is part of the problem. It coincides almost exactly with our national obsession about the safety of our children. As the novelist Michael Chabon put it, “Our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked.”
And the digital world is no refuge. Just when you think it’s safe to send them out in their bike helmets and elbow pads for a quick pedal around the block, it turns out that what they really want to do is play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for 14 hours a day.
One of the primary themes running through popular media at the moment is anxiety over the attraction — or should I say quasi-religious devotion? — kids show for screens. I’ve seen the scary-bizarre headlines (“Forty-two Percent of Teens Say They Can Text While Blindfolded”) and read the alarming studies about gaming addictions and sexting and online bullying. I know that right now entire industries are working around the clock to develop new ways to waste my son’s time.
“If young people are awake, they are connected,” Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told the Atlantic’s James Fallows this year. “When they’re walking, when they’re in a car, if they wake up at night, when they’re in class. This is probably doing something to their brains, but we don’t know what.”
When the guy who makes his living keeping my kid in front of a screen sounds that alarmed about the consequences, I have to pay attention.
But my son and I have some basic philosophical disagreements about screens. I want them to be turned off every so often. He wants to live in a perpetual, plugged-in fast-forward.
I’m convinced that, as an adult, I have a superior sense of what constitutes a worthwhile and healthy use of his time. He rejects the premise that every activity should be worthwhile and healthy.
I have an adult’s sense of the clock ticking, of time wasting, of potential going untapped. He’s a kid. He has an abiding faith in the limitlessness of his own life.
This conflict is not new to the history of parent-child relations. The man who invented adolescence noticed it and he could get almost giddy when he wrote about teenagers. “There is color in their souls, brilliant, livid, loud,” wrote the pioneering psychologist G. Stanley Hall. In 1904, Hall published a two-volume work called Adolescence that was one of the first books of child psychology. We haven’t lacked for books that claim to explain kids since.
Hall was influenced by the German romantic intellectual tradition; he believed adolescence was a time of “storm and stress” marked by moodiness, rule-breaking, conflicts with parents and risk-taking. Maybe today this all seems self-evident. But Hall was developing his ideas during a time of technological and social change to rival our own. Industrialization was changing traditional family roles. New pastimes popular with young people alarmed the adults. Hall worried, for example, that newfangled popular detective novels would encourage all kinds of dangerous behavior.
It all sounds familiar. But Hall meant to position adolescence as an evolutionary stage on the path to adulthood. Today we’re more likely to see childhood and adulthood in clear opposition to each other. If adolescents are brilliantly colorful, then adults must be, well, beige. You’re either growing up or growing old. And given that choice, it’s no surprise that so many of us want to romanticize childhood and make a walled refuge of it.
In his Children at Play: An American History, historian Howard P. Chudacoff wrote about the ways American parents have tried to control and influence their kids’ playtime. Anxious for their safety, we herd them into playgrounds. Determined to get them into the best colleges, we replace their free time with professional lessons. It’s as if adults and children are natural antagonists. Now that we’ve brought them indoors to keep them safe from the predators of the street, they find new kinds of risks online and on screens.
Can you blame them? You’re not really playing if you’re doing exactly what your parents have told you to do. I want my son to listen to me, but I like it when he stakes out his own turf, too. That’s why it matters that he knows his way around the Xbox controller and I don’t. One of the attractions of gaming must be that his parents don’t really get it. There can be no greater endorsement for any childhood activity than the whiff of parental disapproval.
I want to subscribe to the idea that kids have a genius for living and are best left to find their own fun. But I also know that given the option, there’s a good chance my son would spend a ridiculous portion of his childhood in front of a screen. Sometimes I take matters into my own hands and shoo him outside. I tell him to go explore the neighborhood, find one of his buddies, build a fort in the woods behind the house. Out he’ll go, and sometimes he’ll be back inside after 10 minutes of desultory wandering.
Are screens robbing my kid of his ability to create some small adventure for himself? Maybe. But then I grew up during the Late Analog Era, when our pastimes included mumblety-peg, a game that involved throwing pocket knives at your friend’s feet. So I have a limited fund of nostalgia for the charming childhood games of yesteryear. And when I do order my son outside to play, he invariably makes the same discovery: All his friends are inside playing Madden NFL 11.
I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but when email became generally available back in the early 1990s, I entered into a pact with one of my oldest friends: We would never stoop to communicate with each other through this indelicate new medium. We were both young writers then, which is to say that our lives were largely governed by pretense and ambition. We had been carrying on a cross-country correspondence by the U.S. mail (remember?), and we worried that the temptations of electronic immediacy would make us stop writing each other letters. This, we were sure, would be a pity for us and for the future biographers who would be deprived of our collected correspondence on paper.
The pact lasted a few months. The two of us now exchange three, four, maybe a dozen emails each day. Every once in a great while, for old time’s sake, one of us will send the other an actual letter in an actual stamped envelope. It’s almost kitschy.
I don’t offer this story as a lesson in the need to adapt to change. I understand that my friend and I have marked ourselves as a couple of fogeys by continuing to rely on email instead of, say, texts or Facebook. My point is that every great technological advance brings with it, at least for some of us, a sense of loss.
Henry David Thoreau liked to scoff at the telegraph that was beginning to span the country. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau was after a philosophical inwardness and simplicity and depth, in which case being connected is not always a virtue.
He was an extreme case, though. He worried about post office addicts. “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly to the post-office,” Thoreau wrote. “You may depend on it, that the fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.” You can hear critics deploy pretty much the same argument today against habitual texters or tweeters or people with 3,000 Facebook friends.
I don’t think it makes me a technophobe if I suspect that the current-day version of relentless connection, whatever its benefits, is robbing me of . . . something. My attention span? My depth of thought and feeling? My ability to sit, calm and undistracted, and watch a baseball game on TV without wanting to simultaneously pay my bills, follow celebrity Twitter feeds and comment on a friend’s Facebook update?
Like most parents of my generation, I have made a specialty of translating my anxieties about my own life into anxieties about my kid’s life. So I worry that the world of screens is depriving my son of something, too. We want it both ways, we parents. We want our kids’ 21st century classrooms to be loaded with the fanciest possible computers (even though we know that technology doesn’t matter as much as teachers) and want to rely on the iPhone and the DS as all-purpose pacifiers and parenting tools to help us and the kids get through those long car rides or endless waits at the doctor’s office. But we also reserve the right to be nervous about all the time our kids are online. (Have I mentioned online bullying and sexting and Internet addiction?)
This puts us in an awkward position. My wife and I spend most of our days at home tapping away at laptops — always connected, always meeting a deadline, always trying to cajole an extension out of an editor. But every once in a while we look up from our screens to tell our son to turn off his screen. Do we talk out of both sides of our mouths? Very well then. We talk out of both sides of our mouths. We are parents. It’s what we do.
The even deeper irony is that the only reason I am at home and able to monitor my son’s use of digital technology is because of, yes, my use of digital technology. I do the kind of work that can be done at home, on a laptop, then sent to people who pay me, but who I have never actually met. This arrangement, this digital connection, allows me to be literally present to witness the wonder of my boy growing up in front of me. That’s a good thing. But then again, this digital connection — and all the distractions and irritability that come with it — also prevents me from being really present. I know it’s wonderful to watch my son growing up in front of me, but I keep forgetting to pay attention.
My son and his friends are true connoisseurs of distraction. They assemble at our house, each bearing some electronic handheld device to help them survive the interstices when the other kids are taking their turn at the MLB 2K11 Xbox game that is the focus of the gathering. It can be hard to understand the half a dozen things that are happening at once down there in our family room. To eavesdrop on their overlapping conversations and arguments and exhortations at the animated figures running around on their various screens is to feel like an anthropologist watching the complex rites of a newly discovered jungle tribe.
When I watch a scene like this I think of one of the first enthusiasms my son and I shared. We liked to look at clouds. You know the drill. We’d lie on our backs on the lawn and pick out the shapes as they passed overhead. A turtle. A duck. Illinois.
Maybe that sounds boring. It can be boring. But here in the flood of messages and entertainments coming at us from my screens and my wife’s screens and my son’s screens, boredom starts to seem like a kind of relief. Boredom starts to seem like a kind of stimulation. Boredom is the place where imagination kicks in.
I like to imagine a video game that would simulate some of the most boring afternoons of my childhood. The afternoons when none of my friends were around and there seemed to be nothing to do except ride my bike in circles or dig up a corner of the back yard or lie on my back and stare at the sky. I like to imagine a cloud-watching game that my son and I could play on his Xbox 360.
I know he’d beat me every time.
Andrew Santella (andrewsantella.com/) has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.