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Where are the Kids?

No one thinks they are taking away a basketball or bicycle when they give an adolescent a phone.  But there is an implicit swap at work.

The College of New Jersey’s Sarnoff Collection includes a 1948 RCA television, its small round screen surrounded by a hulking box of wood and clunky Bakelite knobs.  The black and white television still works, these days using its limited lines of pixels to show You Bet Your Life to visitors who walk by.

It’s a stark reminder that it’s glow even then was showing us our future.  Television was one of the the earliest forms of screen-based technology. It would soon alter the psychology and even physiology of most of us living in the Western World.

I’m speaking less of television itself, than its constituent elements that made it possible to deliver sound and pictures in a box.  Now, of course, the technology has evolved and exists in many platforms:  everything from phones to virtually every desktop. The ubiquitous presence of screens in our lives has come to dominate us in ways that ‘Bet Your Life’ host Groucho Marx could have never imagined.

What seems so noticeable is the screen’s effect to freeze children in place, a kind of physical demobilization from an earlier time when older children were the most ubiquitous travelers around our neighborhoods.

Most adults find reasons to sentimentalize their childhoods.  It’s a generational perk. But even with those caveats, it remains true that the roaming habits of earlier generations provides a sharp point of contrast; in the twenty first century our stay-inside-kids venture less frequently beyond the front doors of their own homes.


Growing up in Denver, I was one of those “free range kids” that boomers revere.  My territory was a big part of the eastern section of the city on the wheels of a modest three-speed bike. There was an expectation that I would wander home when I was hungry. And I was careful to stay off the city’s busiest streets.  But for an adolescent a bike was its own form of freedom machine .

Favorite east side haunts included City Park, the city Zoo (free), the fences along the city’s airport runways, the Fox Theater in Aurora, and a wonderful natural history museum (free).  Situated in the middle of City Park, what is now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a towering glass foyer that still features a panoramic view of the city center.

Once a drunk near the museum tried to steal my bike.  I said “no” and he left.  It would have been a long walk home without it.  Besides, stories of child abductions didn’t haunt the airwaves, leaving most parents comfortable with the basic decency of the city’s population.

A recent study in Seattle found that children between the ages of 10 to 16 now use only 12.6 minutes per day for vigorous outdoor activity, compared with over 10 waking hours of motionless staring at screens. That’s a staggering imbalance. Research from Britain’s National Trust suggests a similar result, with kids in the U.K. spending half the time of what their parents as children spent outdoors.  As a result, these days teens tend to be a bit thicker and slower.

Of course many kids in tough neighborhoods are deprived of their birthright to explore their surroundings.  Since nearly one in five of American children live below the poverty line, we are talking about a lot of children.  It’s also true that prior generations of Americans weren’t necessarily spending unscheduled time in verdant city parks.  As a child, my father in law was sent out on winter days to pick up coal along the railroad tracks. In northern Michigan this was in no sense “recreational;” the family was desperate for the fuel to stave off the cold.

Our lives have given way to mediated experience instead of richer forms of lived experience.

Even so, many families today have sufficient means to live in a cocoon of non-stop digital entertainment. Computers, phones and electronic games are on more than they are off.  These platforms provide a kind of electronic wallpaper that can have the effect of putting kids under voluntarily house arrest: victims of a kind of what I call ‘screen thrall.’  One effect of their constant digital contact is to even make a tame backyard can look potentially threatening.  Our lives have given way to mediated experience instead of richer forms of lived experience.

And so we are on the period of widely reported police interrogations of any parents who let their adolescent children walk to school unescorted. In my neighborhood on most mornings I see kids escorted to the street from their house in the family’s massive SUV. It ferries them from the front door to the street, where parent and charge sit and wait for the arrival of a bus.

If this sounds like we have made ourselves prisoners to our digital technologies, it’s more of plea for a sense of balance.  A screen demands a sedentary viewer.  No one thinks they are taking away a basketball, jump rope or bicycle when they give an adolescent a phone or tablet.  But there is an implicit swap. We only need to look around at empty yards in most neighborhoods to know where the kids have gone.

Putting the Squeeze on Tired Parents


commons wikimedia.org
                           commons wikimedia.org

A caution about avoiding the use of a common sanity-saver could not help but raise the dissonance level of already stretched parents.

The concern to raise kids that are well launched into this world remains high on the list of goals parents set for themselves. This seems especially true for those first-time owners of a brand new infant who have also been exposed to the behavioral sciences. Little did they know at the time that those required college courses in psychology would firmly plant the seed for the view that early child-rearing choices may have monumental consequences later on.

This is one reason parenting has gone from being something that just happens along the bumpy path of life to becoming a consequential obligation that must be mastered. There is the added realization that even a decades-long commitment is no guarantee that a near-perfect original will emerge.  Parents have always wanted the best for their kids. And there are many routes to successful childrearing. But the current financial and existential squeeze especially on the middle class creates adds pressure to deliver children to the world who are ready to compete on the fastest tracks of success.

No wonder modern families are stretched.  In addition to higher child-rearing expectations, many external factors add to the burden. In more regions of the country it now takes two incomes to support a household. Add to the mix  the required tools of competent child-rearing—a virtual armada of furniture, expensive child carriers, monitors, pediatricians, learning toys and the right food. And then there are the mostly self-induced distractions that still define the aspirations of early adulthood: showing a game face on social media, meeting the needs of relatives and grandparents, child care costs, having a social life, and fulfilling the desire to take advantage of what media and the larger culture can offer. No wonder these working parents feel stretched to the limit.

So it’s no surprise that a widely discussed piece of advice coming from the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics would be greeted with a wince more than an embrace.  The wording of a caution about avoiding the use of a common-sanity saver could not help but raise the dissonance level in this already stretched group. The advice?  The academy cautions parents to not expose their toddlers to screens of any kind.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

We are accustomed to recommendations from medical professionals that put the squeeze on cherished habits.  But this one cannot help but create ambivalence in parents who know well the pacifying tendencies of glowing screens. Has the Academy never noticed that a child in complete meltdown rejoins the human race if bought off with a youtube video or a favorite cartoon show?  Isn’t that why the tablet was invented?  What unwired planet do the members of the Academy inhabit?

There is a serious issue here. Screens are addictive. And they do tend to still a restless and active child.

There is a serious issue here. Screens are addictive. And they do tend to still a restless and active child. That restlessness is the source of endless daily cycles of curiosity and exploration that are essential to the growing process. Childhood is where self-motivated learning is either fostered or mostly extinguished.

I’ve written many times about the effects of “screen thrall,” the semi-frozen state of immobility that comes over most children and adults caught by the need to follow others  continuously on a video. To be sure, much of this content engages.  But the level of engagement is better labeled para-social rather than fully “social.”1  Our involvement with screen characters is obviously stunted by the “one-way” nature of the medium.

One effect extended into older childhood shows up in one telling observation that many older adults report: the near absence of children playing alone or with others outside their homes or in nearby parks. It seems that too many American children have vacated the safe open spaces that these adults remember and romanticize from their own pasts.


1Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (New York: Oxford, 1985), 118-121.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu