Do your kids need to disconnect?
Are video games and the proliferation of mobile devices making us expect constant stimulation? Are we raising a generation of kids that believe they are entitled to be entertained at all times?
Like the King with his court jester, do your kids think that they have a divinely ordained right to be amused at all times? Can your kids sit still? Can you? Do you know how to wait?
For better or worse, most of our kids now spend more time in the digitally constructed sandbox of video games than they do with the worms, stones, sticks and dirt that reigned during my imaginative childhood. What happened to make-believe? Many parents worry that their kids will never learn how to be content without electronic stimulation.
But it is too simple to just blame the new tech for the destruction of the old ways.
Certainly, when I was a teenager, we didn’t have Twitter and Facebook in the palms of our hands. I wrote in my journal or read a book while waiting for the train to and from school. Idle time was spent window shopping or people watching. My kids, on the other hand, might never have to think about how to keep themselves occupied. But is this necessarily a bad thing?
Are we creating a generation of children that are addicted to digital media? Or is this progress? Perhaps we have technologically mastered the problem of human boredom.
“Can I bring the iPad? Can I bring my 3DS?” I hear these questions constantly. I often bring both the iPad and the android tablets to the doctor’s waiting room. My eight year old brings his eReader to restaurants. Even during a quick, ten minute trip into a coffee shop so I can buy myself a shot of espresso, my kids expect to be entertained. I usually say yes. I like when they’re quiet. I get embarrassed if I have to tell them to behave in public places too often. Anyone who has kids knows that boredom breeds misbehavior.
As a result of constant digital stimulation, my kids rarely tell me that they’re bored. When they do, I respond with a phrase my mother used to say to me.
“Only boring people get bored.”
My boys don’t get it. And I’m not sure I believe it. I say it purely out of habit. Some people might call it tradition. It is like an addiction: cyclical, repetitive–a phrase preserved one generation after another. These are words said without intention. These are words said thoughtlessly, without mindfulness. I say them just because my mother did. Frankly, I find repetition boring. The world changes.
Here are 3 things parents should know about stimulation, boredom, and disconnecting in a modern hyper-connected world.
1. Parenting isn’t a binary on/off switch
Don’t just demand disconnection; you can’t just turn off the game console. You have to teach your kids how to occupy disconnected time. Parenting is not binary. It is not as simple as an on/off toggle switch.
I find it crazy that when it comes to our children we prefer quick fixes, grounded in over simplification. We want kids to learn complex thinking, but we approach parenting by avoiding complex uncertainty and confusing ambiguity at all costs.
Bottom line: boredom and stimulation are not necessarily opposites. Digital living is not necessarily the enemy of mindful living. Be wary whenever you are presented with a dichotomy between good and evil.
In the October 28 issue of The New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov wrote an article called “Only Disconnect: Two Cheers For Boredom.” Morozov is critical of the “the state of permanent receptivity” that has “become the birthright of anyone with a smartphone.” He worries that our constantly curated world promotes a culture of “mediated boredom.” Morozov imagines “mediated boredom” like a chemical addiction that “doesn’t provide time to think; it just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.”
Morozov is echoing a familiar new moral high ground that seems to be developing around the use of digital devices. If your social media world is anything like mine, folks are often posting self-congratulatory status updates about how happy they are to turn off their smartphone for a weekend. They describe their hiatus as if it were a monastic retreat from email and social notifications.
It seems like sacrificing digital distractions is the religious asceticism of the mindful new age.
Step off your soap box of disconnection. It is not that simple. Asceticism has always been tricky. Abstinence and self-discipline through will-power is only useful if avoidance leads to something better. Sacrifice for its own sake is the stuff of ancient cults. This is why the modern the solution, according to Morozov, is “radical boredom, and radical distraction.” Both are available through “controlled disconnection” which will force us not to settle for “tepid, mediocre versions” of boredom and distraction. I like the words “tepid” and “mediocre.” They remind us that most of what goes viral on the internet is only mildly interesting–not “AMAZING” or “MIND-BLOWING.”
Morozov’s advice is fine for adults, but let’s not kid ourselves. Radically bored kids won’t spontaneously think of radical distractions. They need to be taught what to do when disconnected. You can’t just scream “no video games” and expect that the kids will miraculously discover creative, imaginative projects. Parents need to offer alternatives. Parents need to teach them how to follow the directions in the LEGO box. Parents need to sit beside them and encourage them to draw their own comic books. Parents need to model imaginative play by playing with kids.
2. Imaginative play is always disorderly and noisy
Parents seem really confused when it comes to digital media and video games. There are multiple narratives and they all seem contradictory. For example, I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t have some level of anxiety about how much screen time their kids get. But these same parents also, like most of us, covet quietness.
Nobody likes listening to kids scream, yell, and bang toys against things. When my kids are occupied with the rigidity of structured, orderly play the general atmosphere in my home is much more conducive to productively going about my adult business.
Video games and digital media keep my kids quietly distracted. When they’re playing Angry Birds, things are quiet and orderly in my house. This is hardly surprising. Patterns, systems, and order are an essential part of interactive digital gameplay.
In his book, A Theory Of Fun For Game Design, Ralph Koster explains that “Games are puzzles to solve, just like everything else we encounter in life. They are on the same order as learning to drive a car, or picking up the mandolin, or learning your multiplication tables. We learn the underlying patterns.”
When it comes to questions about how our kids spend their time, we’re right to worry that video games and media prevent our kids from being imaginative. Perhaps the reason we suspect that video games and digital media might lead to hyperactive short attention spans is simply one of balance. Video games encourage our kids to swing so far to the orderly side of cognitive problem solving that the pendulum simply must swing all the way back to the disorderly side. Gaming teaches your kids important cognitive skills but without balance, the can also hinder the development of imaginative thinking.
The move from order to entropy can be important. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote extensively about the imagination. “We always think of imagination as the faculty that forms images. On the contrary, it deforms what we perceive; it is, above all, the faculty that frees us from the immediate images and changes them.” Bachelard’s theories suggest that the gritty perseverance that video games promote is in direct conflict with the kind of innovative problem solving skills that we want our kids to develop. According to Bachelard, anything which builds habitual patterns “is the exact antithesis of the creative imagination. The habitual image obstructs imaginative powers.”
The point here is that you shouldn’t expect quiet when your kids move away from the game console. If you’re hoping they’ll quietly assemble a jigsaw puzzle, you’ve got it all wrong. A jigsaw puzzle and a video game stimulate the same kinds of thinking.
When your kids step away from a video game they should be noisy. The rigor of the imagination is chaotic and silly.
Yes your kids need a break. But not from the screen. They need a break from rigidity, structure, quiet, and the habitual systems based thinking that the video games promote.
3. Your kids ARE entitled to amusement
Remember that play is something your kids need to LEARN how to do. Video games are better than most parents at teaching kids how to play. Get better! Teach your kids how to be amused.
To amuse literally means to put into a trance. Amusement pre-occupies, bewilders, confounds and puzzles. The concept of amusement is descended from the ancient Greek notion that mortals are often spellbound by the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
Modern researchers don’t like magic. They prefer to come up with supposedly ‘scientific’ names for mythological concepts. They prefer to put things in boxes. They call Muse-inspired enchantment: “FLOW.”
App and game developers have borrowed the term Flow from the field of positive psychology. Flow describes the pleasure of total immersion. Flow is what you feel, as a player, when you are so wrapped up in the game that you barely notice the life-world around you. In fact, you barely notice yourself. You are completely absorbed in the tasks at hand. In her bestseller, Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal describes flow in this way, ”flow is exhilarating in the moment. It makes us feel energized. A major flow experience can improve our mood for hours, or even days, afterward.”
But when our kids are in Flow–immersed, ignoring us, jaw hanging opened, eyes glued to the screen–we get worried. We call them vegetables or zombies. Critics and mindfulness gurus say we’re creating a world where people aren’t capable of being in the present–that we need less multitasking and more single-tasking. I’ve talked to hundreds of teachers who say our kids can no longer focus on just one thing at a time. However, anyone with an eight year old that plays Minecraft can attest that kids spend a lot of time spellbound, focused on the task at hand.
The problem has nothing to do with a kid’s ability to focus. The problem is that adults have taken the magic and wonder out of the real world. There’s nothing worth focusing on. There’s nothing spellbinding left to amuse our children. Of course, the world is plenty magical, but we generally teach our kids to rely exclusively on a kind of Apollonian, measured thinking that conforms to the laws of physics.
I’m all for rational thinking, but both kids and adults would benefit from more magical thinking. The focus on certainty, clear definitions, and test scores strips nuance from our experience of the world. When we devalue the arts and humanities, we prioritize quantitative ways of experiencing the world over qualitative ways. We increasingly eliminate the education in rigorous imagination. We forget that poiesis and metaphor provides children with the skill to use rational thinking in outside-the-box ways.
When adults can only see the world through the bezel of a tiny screen, taking photos, recording video, and mediating their everyday experience like a performance–constructing a meta-narrative through the creation of deterministic social media moments–they model boring ways of being for their children.
When your kids turn off the game console, you should also turn off yours. Use the time to teach your kids how to be silly. Model make believe. Stop acting like a grown-up; it’s boring.
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Instead, take a walk through the woods and look for tree-spirits. Visit a cemetery and pretend to hunt for zombies. Talk to the squirrels.
Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss. For information on his upcoming books and events click here.