A Spoonful of Heroin

Screen capture from the iconic 1984 Apple commercial.

This post is inspired by a post I read over at Raven’s Writing Desk about turning chores into games, a post I read at DadCamp about malls replacing play areas with walls of Ipads, and a post at DadRites about kids and video games.  In my brain it all starts as discussion about boredom.

I think about boredom and how to manage boredom a lot. Sometimes I defeat boredom but thinking about boredom.  Mostly I wonder how I’ll manage Robin’s boredom in this day and age of instant gratification and screens.

My kiddo is only 15 months, so the concept of boredom hasn’t yet kicked in, other than the restlessness at being in a parked stroller for more than a few minutes, or that third hour in the car seat on the way to grandma’s house. But it is an issue I think about all the time. My fear is that I have zero basis to build an understanding of boredom in the age of screens. Computers used to be huge clunky things that you couldn’t lug around. Video games at the dinner table were kinda of an absurd thought.  Sure I was often took to get off the computer and come to dinner, but they were separate events and needed occupied their distinct spaces. But now we go to dinner with my sister and her almost 3 year old, and he’d rather watch Jungle Book videos than interact with the rest of the table.  If you take the screen away he fusses until you have two options: give in or go home.  This is not a critique of my sister’s parenting style.  She kept him away from screens until he was almost two.  She used to angle for the table at the restaurant with no visual access to screens.  But screens found a way in anyway.  Some days you just want a quiet meal with out a fight.  I totally get and support that.

From the Disney Movie “The Jungle Book” based on the book by Rudyard Kipling
Screens are addictive.  They are the glowing embers of the primordial camp fire that mesmerized our ancestors.  Staring into that fire is built into our DNA.  Screens short circuit the brain’s reward system.  Instead of feeling good for accomplishing real things in the real world, we now feel rewarded for achieving things in the screen world, like watching videos about Baloo.   The real world can’t compete.  How else can we explain the emergence of games that reward people for activities they should enjoy just on the merits of the activity.   
I’m a prime example.  I’ve had a Fitbit for over 2 years.  That alone got me walking more.  But when you introduce Ingress to the mix, my step count skyrockets.  Ingress is a game played in the “real” world on your phone.  You have to walk places and interact with portals.  You get points and experience for linking portals and you can only link portals if you have physically visited them and gotten a portal key.  I’m doing pretty well.  I’m level 7 in two weeks.  To achieve level 7 I walked almost 100 miles in two weeks, most of that pushing Robin around in a stroller in City Park.
I am a Proud Frog.
This is both good and bad.  The pragmatist in me thinks: “This is the way the world is now, therefore games that exploit this new reality and get people moving in the real world are good.” Maybe attaching “Achievements” to learning math will encourage kids to put in the work to really understand it.  The cynic wonders how sustainable is a society built on people living only to score virtual points. (Two possible answers are Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom available here for free, and this epic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal).   It seems a little too close to the “gold star” problem this generation already suffers. The crazy homeless conspiracy theorist in me wonders if its all a plan by the Illuminati to hook us all on games so we don’t notice the slow erosion of wages, rights, and intellectualism.  Panem et circenses.
If I’m susceptible as a kid who grew up mostly interacting with the outside world, how is Robin to cope? 
I try not to take my phone out at dinner (unless it’s to resolve a bet, or check the weather, or check what time the zoo opens, or …).  But when my wife and I relax in front of the TV after the kiddo is in bed, I usually have my ipad on my lap. I’m on facebook more than I should be when the kiddo’s awake and terrorizing the dog.  But some days being alone with a toddler is excruciatingly boring. I’m usually very good about not being bored. I can find something interesting in anything set before me. But that skill is sorely tested sometimes being around a being whose greatest joy is grabbing your coffee off the table when you look away.  I know I should turn off the ipad, or shut down the facebook.
The answer I think is to induce boredom.  Let’s make defeating boredom without a screen a game.  How?  I have no real answers, but I do have a few ideas.  
  1. Be up front about the dangers of too much screen time with your kids. I happen to think kids are pretty smart.  They can smell BS, but they can also sense truth.  Tell them that too much screen time leads to lower academic achievement, lower social IQ and less tolerance for delayed gratification.
  2. Make certain times of the day and certain days of the week screen-less time.  For everybody.  We’re toying with the idea of no screens once dinner starts until bedtime.  There are loads of studies that show that this could be a good thing from helping kids (and adults) sleep better to improved family relations.  I’m just not sure how this will apply to the adult time after the kids are in bed, since its the only time we have to watch TV, or play Destiny.
  3. Get lots of analog toys, without “prebuilt” sets (modern Lego, I’m looking at you), and put them in a room where the kids can play with almost complete freedom.  Creative play leads to creative adults.  Let them take their things apart.  Just consider it part of the cost of doing business.
  4. Let kids play.  DadnCharge said this better than I ever could on his blog about banishing the play date.
  5. Let kids be bored.  Boredom isn’t the worst thing.  The brain hates being unused.  This is why the writing exercise where you just start writing “I don’t know what to write.” over and over usually leads into a story idea.  The brain wants to be engaged.       

My parents thought being bored was the key to unlocking the imagination. And I think they were right. I don’t remember being bored as a kid, but I do remember the incredible adventures I’d have as Ghost of the Galaxy (or if I was powered up Ghost of the Universe), in the backyard, or running about the neighborhood. We had plenty of toys, most of which I completely disassembled within a week, never to be reassembled, or reconfigured into other toy monstrosities.  This served me well.  In school I was always able to find the fun take on assignments. And I learned those skills by turning boredom into something else, like an alchemist turns lead into gold.  Sometimes my teachers would get annoyed, like Mrs. Whinery when I wrote a compare/contrast essay on different colors of blue.  But it worked for me.

The ability to see boredom as an opportunity to achieve is something I will strive hard to get Robin to understand.  Understanding that getting the school work, or any work, out of the way before turning on the video game or surfing the web will vastly improve the value of those activities.  Learning to take pleasure in a job well done will be important.  Besides, everyone knows that feeling then the procrastination is full on.  The specter of work avoided hanging over every click of the mouse on Buzzfeed. My truth, learned from years and years, is that the hardest part is just starting.  Get over that initial voice saying it’ll be boring, or hard, and you will usually find yourself immersed in the project.  Some tasks are boring, sure.  But when you’re finished you can indulge yourself guilt free.


Julie Andrew’s as Mary Poppins in Disney’s “Mary Poppins”.

As Mary Poppins sings, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” My fear is that screens will turn that sugar into heroin and this generation will just skip the medicine entirely and never get out of rehab.