We’ve created a monster. And, by “we,” I mean the current regime of grownups in charge. This sinister beast is like a hydra—a creature with many heads that lurk all around us, detached from their virtual “body.” In our pockets and purses, in our drawers and on our tables, the evil makes no effort to hide itself, instead appearing as the “norm.” These tools were built with good intentions, but are doing more damage than anyone could possibly imagine. As society has grown to rely on these monsters, they’ve begun learning about us and our children, and this, lest we forget, is very much along the same lines of how Skynet began, bringing forth the “rise of the machines” and setting off countless adventures of robot assassins that look suspiciously like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our “devices” are harming our children, and they’re chipping away at the foundation of “play” as we know it.
The warnings can sound like a broken record, with the repeated caution drifting into the realm of white noise, ignored by all but a small few, and it often comes down to a matter of convenience. As we know, history repeats itself, but the weight of the consequences can be greater each time.
“Soon my little “Box” will be on countless TVs around the world. Feeding me, credit card numbers, bank codes… and little white lies. Into my head they’ll go. Victory is inevitable, for if knowledge is power, then a God I am! — Jim Carrey as The Riddler in “Batman Forever”
Just as James Cameron’s “The Terminator” predicted the rise of AI in 1984, a decade later Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” (1995) predicted the “connected home” that would tie it all together with the Internet of Things. In fact, what The Riddler marketed as “The Box” is scarily similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, but also our portable devices.
Years ago, some cautioned that TV was “the idiot box,” a harmful device that would numb the masses, and in some cases become a virtual babysitter for busy parents. The doom and gloom was vastly exaggerated, but that’s not to say that convenience didn’t lead to abuse for some. As with many vices, moderation is the key, and if kids are addicted to devices, it’s not their fault, it’s ours.
When I was a kid, there was nothing better than a trip to the toy store. Toys “R” Us, Child World, FAO Schwarz, and Circus World (later KB Toys) were destinations for kids of all ages. Even department stores were in on the action, and if we were out shopping for clothes, a visit to the toy department was still something we’d beg our parents for. I could write at length about shopping for Transformers at Service Merchandise, Star Wars at Zayre, G.I. Joe at Sears, or Masters of the Universe at Wieboldt’s (and yes, I have stories for all).
Now, with the exception of Toys “R” Us (FAO still exists as a licensed brand), those places and most of their competitors are long-gone, and many department stores have done away with their toy departments, leaving the big box mass retailers with a lock on things. Neighborhood toy stores do a fantastic job of carrying the torch for play, but since they lack the reach that the big guns once had, many families don’t even know that they exist.
In recent years, whenever there’s a downturn in the toy industry, whether it’s slowing sales or retail closures, one trend that’s always cited is “the popularity of electronic devices like tablets and smartphones.” That’s been noted often in the recent headlines generated as Toys “R” Us puts up a valiant fight to be the last of the giants. That’s only part of their problem—but it’s a big one.
If satisfaction is the death of desire, then convenience is the death of imagination. As busy parents, it’s convenient to hand a child a tablet or smartphone as a pacifier, entertainer, and in some cases, yes, a babysitter. It can keep them quiet, and while I get why we do it – and I’ve done it – that’s not a good thing.
As adults we’re already tethered to our devices. They’ve become necessary in our everyday lives, and it’s not something we can easily change at this point. Why then, do we insist on pushing that same digital reliance on our children? Shouldn’t they be allowed to experience a true childhood filled with imaginative play?
My wife and I thought we were doing so well with keeping our girls away from the tablets as a norm. It wasn’t like the kids were never allowed to play with them (they are), but the idea was that it would be a “sometimes treat”—much like video games were for us as kids. They could enjoy some screen time, but they wouldn’t have access to their tablets 100 percent of the time.
Then our oldest daughter came home from school with an iPad.
As a requirement as part of her third-grade public school curriculum, assignments are given on the iPad, which also comes with a reporting tool and a set of school-approved apps. The students are responsible for the care of the device, and to make sure that it’s charged at the beginning of class each day. While we’re fortunate that our school district can afford such things, they just created a new legion of kids that are obsessed with their devices. It’s like the modern equivalent to the egg that kids used to have to care for back in the day, except now it’s an Apple. Having her come home with that iPad managed to undo what we worked hard for. Within weeks, she was sneaking it, often watching questionable videos on both YouTube and YouTube Kids, both of which were among the approved apps. After using Circle with Disney (a device I love) to limit home Wi-Fi access to just one hour a day, I ended up blocking YouTube entirely from her tablet. That’s right, I, a YouTube creator, make my own children request permission for access.
Entering 2018 by coming off of a two-week winter break, the tablets in this house have hardly been used (mine haven’t been used at all, just my phone). The school one needs to be charged, but that’s just because it’s been sitting. As I type these words, both of our girls are playing— really playing—with dolls, action figures, and board games. This is play as play should be. If you take away the tech, the interest in toys will be renewed.
The world we live in won’t allow us to turn back the clock and do away with tech as it’s become, but as grownups we can certainly limit access to it. Sometimes the kids won’t like it. They’ll call us mean, or they might even throw a tantrum. But after the dust settles? The kids will play!