In a world of scheduled playdates, phones and videos games let kids connect spontaneously

Yeah, I know, screen time is controversial. And many adults, in fact entire governments, are worried about what we are “exposing our children to.” While I agree we need to protect children against predators -in all forms, in any situation- let me offer a different perspective on what screens can do for children.

I consider myself to be someone who straddles between two generations, between old and new, between General X and Millennials. I was born in 1980 and I am, technically, probably a Millennial, although my former high school classmates would deny this. At any rate, I find I am at the tip of all new social problems. I was, for instance, one of the first to experience the housing crashes that the younger generation is now all too familiar with. Except, when I go through the new problem, it isn’t a socially recognized problem yet. I mostly get to deal with it alone, with the typical blame that surrounds having any such problem. And the use of screen time, as well how kids get together to play, are very real issues facing the next generation of parents.

When I was a kid, if you wanted to get together to play with someone else, you went to their house and knocked on their door. Parents would actually get mad if you didn’t and ordered you to go do just that. Most of us had some kind of street or large area where we could play. An alley or a little used street let us run races or play games at night. I’m not saying it was the best set up, asking this introvert to go knock on doors and then stay out longer than I would have wanted, but this is how it was.

When my own kids were little, I wondered if this, just going and knocking on doors, was in any way still socially acceptable. It really isn’t. Moms wonder why you rang the doorbell while they or their newborn were taking a nap. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of this happening. As just sending your kid over to someone’s house is controversial, if someone sends their kid to my house, it mostly feels like I am being asked to babysit for free. It doesn’t feel reciprocal. It doesn’t feel safe, either, as kids in my neighborhood can’t even play in the front yard. It’s quite simply not safe enough, with as fast as cars whiz by and with as few safety guards as there are.

Indeed, I find this problem is split between old and new. When I ask people if they can even play in their front yard, there is pretty clearly a divide between people in older neighborhoods and people in new ones. If they are in an old neighborhood, they have a sleepy road, perhaps even in a cul-de-sac (what we called “dead ends” when I was a kid), where kids can play. People in modern neighborhoods, with the mini-mansions that go on forever, describe the roads as too unsafe and the playgrounds as rather pathetic. And I kind of need the older generation to understand the new problems of the next generation.

So, at any rate, we are where we are now, which is a world of scheduled playdates. This was really hard for me when my kids were little. I was a sleep-deprived mom of three young children, with no social support, which is, by the way, increasingly normal for a modern family as people migrate all over the country more. I am already highly introverted as it is and, on top of this, I was also desperately trying to do the mom thing and the laundry thing and the figure-out-how-to-be-a-parent thing. Now, on top of this, I can’t just have the benefit of a built-in social network, where my kids can go out and easily find other kids to play. Now it has to be a heroic effort on my part to make happen. And, I did my best. But by nature, if it’s all scheduled and we have to drive to make it happen, it’s going to be limited in how much children can get together. Sorry, kids, but hope your mom is well-connected, well-rested, able to drive you anywhere and everywhere at any time, and that you are indeed up for social activity and not moody or aggravated at exactly 2 pm on Tuesday. Like I said. I did my best.

So, fast forward a few years. My children are now older. Lockdowns didn’t help our situation, ok? But even though we homeschool and we moved to a new area when my children were very little, it is actually amazing how well people find each other and connect. We’ve met people, some with kids my children even highly connect with. But, we still face problems. One of my daughter’s friends moved away–because this just happens often. Kids have busy schedules. And many of us still live 15 or more minutes apart which, when I was in school, would have put you in a different school district and would have not been at all conducive to friendship.

Anyway, what I’ve seen is that screens are keeping my children in touch. My daughter has a highly extroverted streak and needs the connection. We decided to get her a phone, at age 8. You know what a phone does? It mostly just lets her talk to her friends. We had landlines when we were little. We could, yes even as young as 3rd or 4th grade, talk to our friends on the phone. In fact, I kind of remember it being a thing. What are you doing on a Friday night? Talking to my friend until late at night. I kind of remember it being called something but I don’t remember what at this point. Video games have done a similar thing for my son. He exchanges his user name with other friends and they get together. In fact, he has taken over the whole thing. He knows how to send out the Invite link. He sets up “parties” (this appears to be a video game thing) so they can go do things. As far as social activity, my oldest son absolutely hates what he sees as nonsense. He doesn’t just like to “hang out.” He wants to do things. Doing it this way, he gets to actually do something with other boys his age. It’s actually been great to develop leadership and comradery.

The girl doesn’t choose the phone; the phone chooses the girl.

You know what doesn’t happen with screens? Let’s see. Best friend wars, for one. When children engage with others over a screen, they are all there by voluntary decision. There isn’t so many kids there, many against their will, that they are ostracizing and berating one child, which was common in those sleepy little streets I grew up on. What else? They aren’t kept longer than they want. If they want to hang up or end the video game, they do. They also all focus on the same thing. My daughter likes to draw things and share them with her friends. Her friends will do the same back, even drawing her. What an incredible amount of love and adoration doted on each other! My son goes around proud when he “carried his team” in a video game. If we’re going to deny children pick-up basketball and nighttime hide and seek, at least they can go heroically beat a common enemy in a video game?

Oh, yes, I agree: protect children from predators. I was preyed upon as a teenager when AOL came out. To be honest, nothing that terrible came of it. Also, I know women from the generation before me say they would be flashed by men when near wooded areas, which never happened to me. So, is this problem new? Or is it just in a different format? And, I don’t think any of us know how to best protect children, yet. But, you know who else I’ve also had to protect my children from? Adult swim instructors dunking them, thinking it was a growth measure. Soccer coaches making my child feel inadequate. Dance instructors losing their crap on my child, over a bow on her shoe. Maybe we adults can clean up our abuse problem rather than taking away children’s means of connecting? I personally focus on education. Why does the world even have predators? I saw a video once of a woman who answered that: so we stay smart. I actively talk with my children about how others are wrong if they try to make them feel small. We talk about different scenarios and how they can run like hell if they see [x, y, or z] behavior. And, by the way, my lessons extend not just to online predators but bad doctors, teachers, and more. Indeed, letting children have a strong, healthy community where they feel loved and accepted might very well be the best thing to protect them from predators!

Any new technology or new way of doing something seems to cause suspicion at first. (Well I mean unless it’s a new medical treatment but I digress.) I look at our world, with its increasing rigidity, and I just wonder what it all means. And then–whooooooooooooosh!–life comes in with a new answer, something perhaps even better. Perhaps screens are just life fixing itself, giving us and especially children what they are so desperate for: easy, breezy, I-can-hang-up-if-I-want connection.

Neither old nor new, neither in nor out, Amber documents the age-related stages children go through. It is those times children act up but on the other side is new growth. Send your friends and family to The Observant Mom.

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