Last week I was poking around in an airport bookstore when I noticed a sky-blue cover with a pixelated yellow pencil on it. The title, in big black letters, read The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.
I was intrigued. I think a lot about the challenges of raising a child when technology grows more complex by the minute. So I bought the book and got on my flight, hoping to learn about ways to teach kids cooperative interaction and social fundamentals in the digital era.
When I opened it, I found just the opposite.
Frankly, Jordan Shapiro’s The New Childhood is short-sighted, haughty, and riddled with false equivalencies. He goes on and on about the many wonders of virtual interaction, calling popular games like Minecraft and Fortnite examples of “The New Sandbox”. He says that because our communities have gone from local to global, children must replace the physical playmates in their immediate vicinity with online ones around the world.
He also compares video games to playground equipment, offering anecdotes of watching his children play at the park and asserting that digital play will teach the same basic skills of cohabitation: cooperation, compromise, and imagination.
Shapiro fails to address a lot of things in his assessment of the digital childhood, but there are two most egregious oversights: Economics and empathy.
A cynical view of capitalist economics can be used to undermine almost anything these days, but it really does apply here. Basically, Shapiro spends almost 100 pages comparing video games to swingsets, and fails to touch on one simple difference between the two:
SWINGSETS AREN’T MAKING MONEY OFF YOUR KIDS.
I don’t know how much more obvious this could be. The object of a playground is to give children an arbitrary, non-descript structure on which their imaginations can run wild. Ordinary parks become jungles, secret hideouts, spaceships… In the eye of childhood, a pair of swings can become a cockpit and a few platforms can become a command center.
But the structures themselves were erected by an architect, long before most children come into contact with them. Most stand for years and years before any sort of renovation is made… The architect is not releasing a new playground every year and charging admission.
Videogame programmers, on the other hand, are not as interested in longevity or creative potential. Many don’t even like video games themselves. Their focus is on retention, and on expansions. How many hours can I keep a kid playing my game, and how many sequels can I get them to beg Santa for?
Playgrounds benefit kids, video games benefit programmers.
Though Shapiro does address the need to teach kids about targeted advertising, he fails to provide convincing evidence of positive instruction replacing. negative exploitation. As we have found with the adult film industry, it’s borderline impossible to put moral incentives over financial ones.
The second (and somehow even more severe) omission from Shapiro’s book is that digital interaction doesn’t teach empathy. He has a whole chapter devoted to “The New Empathy”, and yet it feels like an indictment of cyberbullying.
He fails to touch on the ways in which increased media consumption is already failing to translate into the real world, other than by saying that our definition of empathy needs to change.
But the real world will always be the real world, and these games don’t teach us to assess the reality around us. If they did, dead gamers wouldn’t be going unnoticed for hours in video game cafes.
There are many, many, MANY studies that make this point conclusively; video games do not teach children how to understand and interact with another living, breathing person. They can’t. The technology isn’t there yet.
Games fail to replicate basic modes of communication, like body language. Through a screen, a kids won’t learn to tell if someone needs help when say they don’t. They also won’t learn to tell if someone doesn’t need help when they say they do. The later has often proven more problematic.
Furthermore, when elementary school kids play together they also learn how to compromise. Everyone has their role in the imaginary worlds, and each world builds a new story around new characters. As with any good improve troop, yesterday’s kings and queens might become today’s attendants and nurses. Everyone feels what it’s like to be both the center of attention, and in the background.
How many video games have kids playing as supporting characters?
In a digital world, the player is always the lead. They are always the center of attention. The story is about doing or getting what they want. Everyone else’s needs are secondary.
Video games model sociopathy, not empathy.
Shapiro was right about one thing: The single most important skill we can learn from play is cooperation. But so far, video games teach us just the opposite, because they’re designed to keep us coming back for more. They give us what our instincts often crave — attention, control, and success — within a virtual reality.
I don’t think video games are inherently without merit, and either way I know they’re probably here to stay. But there are definitely some parameters of usage I’d set before letting kids use them.
I wouldn’t let them game alone. All of my gaming memories (though admittedly few and far between) are rooted in the actual person next to me on the couch. It was really satisfying to demolish my buddy in Super Smash Bros. last week, but the memory is the very human look of defeat on his face. I couldn’t tell you what the characters were doing on the screen.
Unless we invent holograms, online interactions won’t offer that kind of experience.
I’d also keep in mind that kids aren’t learning the same lessons from their PlayStation as they are from their playground. One isn’t a surrogate for the other. I would make sure they were finding plenty of outlets for creative play in the physical world.
Until further notice, my kids are going to play in make believe worlds of their own imagination. Not one where someone has already done the imagining for them.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to correct the name of the author. We regret the error.
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