I love those commercials on TV where the 12-year-old kids are looking at the 8-year-old kids saying, “Man, those kids have it good. Remember when we had to wait a whole minute for a YouTube video to buffer?” “Yeah, I had to wait 30 seconds just to see a sneezing panda.” “Those kids wouldn’t last a mile in our shoes.”
It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s true. Technology and the world around us is evolving so quickly that even children a few years apart may experience two very different forms of childhood. Certainly the experience my son will have will be vastly different from what my life was like growing up.
My son, like many other children of the mobile tech generation, lives in a world of screens. At two years old, he is already a pro at playing games on my phone and begs for the tablet so he can watch Elmo and Thomas the Train. He doesn’t understand why you can’t swipe a television. Or a mirror.
As I was researching and writing my book, “Dot Complicated” (now available for pre-order on Amazon! Shameless plug!), I spoke with a lot of parents about the topic of young children and screen time. And finally, I was able to put a finger on what it was that was so unsettling for most parents.
When I was growing up, I pretty much lived in two worlds: the real world and the creative imaginary world that I dreamt up in my own play time. Sure, we were allowed to watch the occasional television show here and there, but we spent a lot of time building blanket forts in the living room, pretending to be superheroes in the backyard, or designing clothes for our Barbie Dolls out of toilet paper and bobby pins.
But today’s children now live in three worlds: the real world, the imaginary world, and now, more increasingly, the virtual/mobile screen world. When used mindfully and sparingly, this third world can add a whole new dimension of creativity, education, and delight. But when used mindlessly or as a default, we run the risk of this new virtual world creeping into the time kids would have spent using their own imagination and creativity.
Of course, there is a time and a place for tech – there are so many wonderful tools out there to stay connected to family members, to learn and grow, and to explore new concepts and ideas. But we need to make sure it doesn’t come at the expense of the blanket fort. Call me old fashioned and maybe that’s just my version of the “In my day, I had to walk to school barefoot, uphill, both ways,” but to me, a world without blanket forts is a sad world to me.
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a young guy who was getting ready to go off to college. We started talking about roommates, and he turned to me and said, “You know, I feel bad for people who didn’t have social media before they went off to college. I can’t imagine how stressful it must have been to just show up at school without knowing who your roommates were and just meeting them for the first time there.” I was about to jump in and interject, “Well, that’s just part of the whole college experience! Haven’t you watched a single movie about people going to college? They always meet their roommate for the first time when they arrive! Meeting them in advance over social media takes away all the joy.”
But I stopped myself. In just a decade, tech had completely changed the way people do things – like preparing to go off to college. It didn’t mean he was going to have any less of an experience than I had. In fact, he was probably going to arrive at college more confident, more relaxed, more well-adjusted than I did, arriving on my first day. Not only did this young man not feel anxious about the role of tech in his life – he was embracing it. He felt sorry for ME that I hadn’t had social media going into my own college experience!
It’s easy to look back and say, “Gosh, things were so much better/easier/simpler when we were younger” or “Tech is ruining these kids’ lives” – but it’s time to change that thinking. Things are different for children growing up right now. They’ll be totally different again in another ten years. And another ten years from that. And I’m perfectly ok with that.
Last night, I snuggled in bed with my son until 9:30p.m., and we ate chocolate ice cream and had a tickle fight and laughed. Yes, I know that’s really late. And yes, I know. Full fat ice cream. But we had such a wonderful time, and I realized that there’s no replacement for quality one-on-one time with a loved one. No matter what technological innovations come about, no matter how many screens we can swipe, there are also some things about childhood that will never, ever change. And I’m perfectly ok with that, too.
Written by Randi Zuckerberg
In Randi’s upcoming books, “Dot Complicated” and “Dot,” Randi addresses our complicated relationship with technology, through her own personal stories on the front lines of social media, and helps us navigate our lives in this tech-obsessed world.
What do you think? Tweet @dotcomplicated and let us know!