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.