“I worry about my kids,” a presenter at a conference I recently attended said. “When we grew up, we played outside. We interacted with friends. We formed memories. What memories are today’s children going to have, since they’re spending childhood staring at screens?”
He went on with his presentation, which I’m sure was insightful and interesting. I couldn’t get past his opening comment. He was around my age, which meant he was likely raised in the era of cable television and video arcades. I then realized that all of this talk about “kids today” and their tablets and smartphones was just talk.
I didn’t have a smartphone when I was a kid. I couldn’t text my friends to ask what they were wearing to school the next day. But when I was 11, my parents ran a separate “kids only” phone line so my sister and I could talk to our BFFs for hours without tying up the main phone.
I couldn’t spend hours blowing up candy or shooting birds into pigs’ fortresses, but when I was 12, my parents brought an Atari home. We spent hours playing Pac-Man and Frogger. I had a Merlin, which allowed me to play tic tac toe and blackjack. All of those games gave us plenty of things to do besides talk to our parents or play outside.
Most of my childhood and adolescence were spent with my nose buried in a book. The '80s was a big decade for young adult fiction. I read every cheesy teen romance that came out. As I got older, I read V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. At 15, I was more likely to be sitting in a corner, reading, than playing basketball with the neighbors.
My grandmother always had piles of magazines when we visited. I’d spend the two weeks we were there reading True Story and old National Enquirers, hoping nobody would tell me I had to go outside and play. I think of that when I see my stepdaughter playing on her phone while visiting her own grandparents. Same behavior, different format.
Would my childhood memories have been stronger if I hadn’t spent so many hours watching MTV and reading about children who were locked in an attic? Doubtful. The truth is, I have fond memories attached to those things. And, I set down my book when something interesting was happening. I spent time with friends and relatives and had a full life, just as kids today do, and they’ll remember their friends and relatives just as we do.
Granted, outdoor time is good for kids, just as it was healthy when we were kids. I can’t buy into the theory that my generation spent 15 hours a day outdoors and stared at the screen very little. The only difference is that we often shared a screen with everyone else in the room, while today’s devices let everyone separate themselves.
But to say our generation had it better because our vice was MTV instead of Candy Crush is just wrong. You can limit their screen time. You can even tell them that “back in the day” you played outside instead of staring at a screen. After a while, you might even start believing it. But other Generation Xers likely know the truth — because we were there.
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