Digital Media and Community

When the Macomber Center opened four years ago we had a big boxy television with a video game system hooked up to it.  At some point during the day, there would be a group of kids of all ages sitting around it, two playing and all the rest watching and waiting for their turn to play.  This scene was short-lived.  Pretty soon someone brought up “video games” as an agenda item at the community meeting.  The feeling for many of the kids was that the whole point of life at the Center is to learn how to do the challenging and difficult work of figuring out what’s important to you, what you really care about, and how you really want to spend your time, both individually and as a community.  It’s not that video games can’t be part of that equation, or even a central part if you’re really serious about video games. But most of the kids were not serious about video games.  They played it because it was there, our Center being small enough that it is hard to avoid a TV in the middle of the main room.  For most of the kids, having a big video game console in the middle of the room was too easy, too absorbing, and it preempted the process of figuring out what they might really want to be doing.  

Getting rid of the video games was by no means a unanimous decision.  There was a small minority who wanted to keep the video games and they felt that the kids who didn’t want to be “sucked in” by them should figure out a different solution to the problem, one that didn’t limit other’s freedom to play.  Moreover, they argued, if you need some external force to regulate your activity, to keep you from playing video games or whatever else, then you’re not really learning to be independent and self-directed within a community where distractions are par for the course.  I found both sides of the argument compelling.  After all, individual well-being requires supportive social and institutional structures and the kids seeking to restrict video games were taking it upon themselves to create that supportive structure.  

In the end, the big TV was taken away and I thought, at the time, that that was the end of it.  Little did I know that within a year or so every child born in the United States would come into the world with an iPad in her hands.  Needless to say, getting rid of the big TV was the beginning of the debate over video games.  I say this with no lament, because the ongoing conversation that has occurred at the Center over the past few years has been a great opportunity to think deeply and critically about digital media in contemporary life, and about how we want to use digital media as individuals together in a community.   

Recently, James, Denise and I were talking about an article that we had all seen in the New York Times about “screen time”.  A couple of the kids sat down and started asking questions about the article and we started talking about the question of parents placing limits on screen time for their kids.  The conversation eventually moved to the “screen-free hour” that the community meeting had adopted last year.  We all agreed that the problem with last year’s experiment was that on the one hand it was a nuisance for people who didn’t want any outside support regulating their media use and on the other hand it didn’t go far enough for the people who wanted help regulating their media use.  At this point, one of the kids sitting with us said that he thought most of the other kids would be in favor of removing the one hour screens-free period and instead implementing a two hour video game-free period, since, for those wanting the restriction, it is certain kinds of video games that are the problem, not screens in general.  

He came up with the idea of a survey; this would allow kids to mark off which number of hours they would support for a restriction on video games.  The choices were zero through three.  The survey also had people indicate if they themselves played video games or not.  Obviously, even if there was overwhelming support for a three-hour restriction coming from people who don’t play video games it would not be taken very seriously by the meeting.  He tallied the results and brought them to the meeting.  The clear preference of the majority of video game players was for a two-hour restriction.  Interestingly, for non-gamers, there was less support for any of the proposed restrictions.  But this data, as illuminating as it was, did not by any means close the debate on video games.  A long and even more illuminating discussion ensued.  What really struck me about the whole discussion was that the more we talked the more complex the issue appeared to be.  The kids taking part in the discussion, some as young as 6 and 7 years old, as well as older kids, began to draw out very significant distinctions not only between different kinds of video games but also real differences in the ways that kids can engage the same video game.

Compared with kids who have grown up in a digital world, adults tend to think in much more limiting terms about digital media.  Most kids see in a much wider spectrum of color and shade in the digital landscape.  For them, the digital environment is diverse and multi-dimensional like any other environment.  Adults talk about “screen time” as though it’s one thing.  Kids don’t use the term “screen time”.  They tend to be much more precise in their language.  We don’t talk about “outdoor time” as though any activity that takes place outdoors is essentially the same, only varying in minor details.  And kids who are fluent with digital media don’t think of it as a discreet, limited realm of experience.  

What I’ve seen at the Macomber Center, particularly this year, is that kids have the capacity to reflect critically on their own experience in general and in particular on their own screen use.  At the community meeting, the kids know that the adults take their interests seriously.  We are genuinely interested in what they have to say about their own screen use and the role of screens in community life at the Center.  They know that we’re not “down on screens”, we’re not trying to talk them out of anything.  So they’re eager to talk at length and in great detail about a topic that they know a great deal about.  So it’s hard for me to accept the condescending attitude that we adults need to teach kids about “digital citizenship” (as the new AAP guidelines suggest) when we have as much to learn from them about the transforming effect that digital media is having in the world.  As we figure out the role that we want digital media to play in our lives individually and in community life, we need to treat kids as an equal part of that discussion.  

Many experts are quick to recommend guidelines that we can impose on our own, and especially on our kids’, screen use.  Some see screens as intrinsically addictive and recommend a rigid, top down approach to limits and restrictions on “screen time”.  Others recognize that screens are not in themselves harmful and take a more balanced, common sense approach.  While guidelines and limits can be useful, especially when they’re sensible and can remain flexible, the way we follow the advice of experts on screen use can foreclose on the process of actually thinking carefully about the role that we want digital media to play in our lives and in our kids’ lives.  This requires paying attention not only to the amount of time spent on screens but also to how we use screens and how our kids use screens, the two often being quite different. I often find that when I actually sit down next to a kid on a screen and ask about what they’re doing, it almost always turns out to be much more interesting, creative, and challenging than what I could have imagined, and in fact, what I would have assumed had I not bothered to ask.