Lamenting Screen Time and the Decline of Creative Play

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky


What will today’s children, especially those immersed in screen technology, consumption, and materialism, remember from their childhood?  Will it be fall afternoons spent inside, with sticky fingers swiping and tapping at an iPad screen?  Will it be the hours spent playing the latest “educational” app?  Hopefully not, but it’s troubling that so many young people are encouraged to engage with the digital world more than the tangible grass, dirt, and sun outside their front doors.

“Children need opportunities to find joy and meaning in what can’t be bought, like friendship, creativity, love and the natural world,” Susan Linn writes in the New York Times.  I wonder how well children are developing meaning in the world beyond what is consumed and accessible through screens.  I’m grateful I didn’t grow up in an age in which my parents debated whether or not toddlers need iPads (hell no) or were tempted by the glut of screen distractions as a cheap babysitter.   I’m grateful that I was afforded the opportunities to build forts, sandcastles, and explore my neighborhood and city by foot or bike.  I’m grateful I didn’t have a laptop or cell phone at my side or in my pocket until my twenties.

This blog’s epigraph served the same role for an memoir project I wrote nearly ten years ago as an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont.  The memories I hold from childhood are rich with doing things, bloodying my palms, sweating, playing, and interacting with every breathing little person on Auburn Street and Ridge Road.  I do not take these experiences for granted, because here’s what childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Page of Cambridge University has to say about children and screen time in a Washington Post blog piece:

  • Researchers who have tracked children’s creativity for 50 years are seeing a significant decrease in creativity among children for the first time, especially younger children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This decline in creativity is thought to be due at least in part to the decline of play.

  • What children see or interact with on the screen is only a representation of things in the real world. The screen symbols aren’t able to provide as full an experience for kids as the interactions they can have with real world people and things. And while playing games with apps and computers could be considered more active than TV viewing, it is still limited to what happens between the child and a device — it doesn’t involve the whole child’s body, brain, and senses.

  • Finally, as we try to make wise choices in using technology, we can ask ourselves: When and why do I choose to use screens with children? We can remember that our kids grow socially and emotionally by interacting with us and through direct experiences with others, and make sure we aren’t bypassing important everyday social and emotional “lessons” by how we use screens.

Carlsson-Page’s words remind us that we should be more vigilant when it comes to providing digital tools to young people.

Here’s an excerpt from my memoir piece titled “Mostly Good Players,” a testament to a childhood free of digital distractions.

Very few traces remain of the original BarnYoung diamond at 33 Auburn Street in Concord, New Hampshire.  The rotting, wobbly, wooden fence that served as the outfield boundary has been replaced by sturdy unfinished oak.  Squirrels no longer need to hesitate while scuttling across the divider.  The mysterious red-berried vine that graced the old fence in straightaway center is long gone.  The driveway, or imaginary mound, has been repaved.  The mini-frost heaves that functioned as pitching rubbers are a distant memory.  After the original neighbors moved away, the new residents cut down the hemlock trees, whose limbs used to protrude across the fence and catch towering Wiffle ball shots.  Depositing the home runs gracefully—the ball dropping rhythmically from prickly bough to bough until rolling to a stop in the outfield—the trees often saved trips to the neighbor’s yard to retrieve home runs.  Anyway, who liked rounding the fence, scrambling under the bushes where some animals had done their business, and trespassing in the neighbor’s back yard to collect balls?

From idolizing Jose Canseco and Wade Boggs, to devouring ketchup and relish topped hot dogs for a buck at Grappone Park, to collecting countless packs of baseball cards with money my dad paid us for picking up pinecones—a cent a pop—that dropped from the two shipmast spruce in our yard, baseball had a massive influence on my youth, as it does with many.  But out of all the traditions, idols, games, and collecting, home run derby took the cake for me as the number one way to kill a hot summer afternoon.  Ben Young—who shared the naming of the field with me—and I spent countless hours as opponents, umpires, and groundskeepers.  Grass didn’t stand a chance to sprout in the batter’s box, a patch of dirt about one foot by three feet worn smooth by bald-soled Nike sneakers and bare feet.

The field had unusually convenient dimensions.  The left field foul pole was an imaginary line drawn from home plate past one of the towering blue spruce, just about where third base would be, to the peak of the Chapin’s two-car garage.  One of the dark brown-shingled walls was in play.  If you crushed a low line drive to left, it would likely careen harmlessly off the Brown Monster—a distant relative of Fenway Park’s Green Monster—and bury itself in our dense rectangular garden.  There was a striking resemblance between the garden’s actions and St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith:  You hit it in their direction, the ball would most likely be gobbled up, one out.  Of course, only the garden employed overgrown zucchini, bean, and cherry tomato limbs, rather than nimble feet and a quick flash of the leather, to make the play.

A short tan fence extended from the edge of the Brown Monster towards left center field, where it met the rotting gray fence at a ninety-degree angle.  This was the deepest point in the ballpark—about ninety feet from home plate—and a blast over this corner was considered mammoth.  The ivy in center was, to us, closely linked to the famed growth that covers the ancient brick outfield walls at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.  Another building served as a foul pole for right field—our old barn.  And we had lighting for evening battles: a floodlight was positioned perfectly on a second floor corner of the beige structure, providing just enough brightness to illuminate low home runs, but not moon shots that landed harmlessly in the neighbor’s yard.             

The adjacent properties seemed to vacuum up our Wiffle balls.  Sometimes a ball would sail over the fence, land in a driveway and roll down into the street, never to be found again.  Other times, we swore, the crotchety old neighbors snatched our home runs before we could retrieve them from well-maintained windowboxes or from beneath a shiny white Chrysler New Yorker.

Do you limit or encourage screen time for your kids?  What are your favorite memories of childhood?  Are you worried about digital tools eroding creativity?  


  1. I think imagination and creativity can prove to be a catalyst in some ways, too, but not if your default mode of play and leisure is screen consumption.
    I’m sure that, as a future parent, I’ll turn to screens someday to salvage some quiet for myself. Good point.

  2. Agree with the idea of balance. I think many kids are now going to head into their adolescence with a highly skewed balance towards tech/screen time, and it’s a tough pull to overcome. I, myself, considered myself to have a balanced life, but I still find myself stepping back from screens when I use my phone or laptop our of sheer habit.
    Good point about organized activity and adults. Too much control. Gotta strike a balance there, too.

  3. I agree. There are so many pitfalls to the screen it seems. Imagination and creativity may very well prove to be casualties of this new technology. It only seems compounded by the needs of parents to engage their kids in something while they tend to the myriad of other day to day tasks and eek out some downtime for themselves.

  4. It is distressing and I am glad that my children had plenty of unstructured outside play growing up – I worry for my nieces who don’t seem to have much sense of their place in a larger world nor much ability to engage others, though I know that they have some creativity.

  5. Life is all about balance. I think it also depends on the kid. I grew up during the time with only 3 TV channels. I remember saying, hearing and feeling – “I’m bored.” Which maybe was not such a bad thing as I believe we are all a little over simulated these days.

    I think my biggest gripe would be not so much the technology (screen time), but too many activities that are organized by adults. Sports teams, music lessons, play dates, this generation of kids is so over scheduled. There is no time for creative play, play that is not structured! This type of life style has also led to kids with a sense of entitlement.

    Well, just my two cents…

  6. That was a good post. I’ll add that I have a theory about overexposure to computer screens, electronic toys and overly flashy children’s television being a cause of autism. I can’t imagine that the constant bombardment of bright images, flashing lights and beeps, boops and bops wouldn’t cause some children’s brains to shut down.

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