When the Screen Is Blank, Kids Come Alive

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/12/21/when-the-screen-is-blank-kids-come-alive/

There can be heavy traffic in Maine. And I’m not talking about the danger of moose collisions. Hearty drivers in Boston will scoff because nothing compares to the Mass. Pike or I-93 at rush hour.

But Maine, with its narrower roads, does have its bottlenecks, and I hit one recently, leaving Portland at 5 p.m., with three kids in the backseat, ages 10 to 14.

None of them have smartphones; nor was there a video screen available (please, in my Subaru rust bucket).

With traffic backed up, the usual 45-minute drive would take twice as long. What would these poor kids do?

Well, there were stories to tell, and laughter to share. And, after a moment of quiet, they made up a game, with the goal being to name as many characters as possible from the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This was not suggested by their father. If I played, I would have finished a distant fourth.

These three kids were stuck for 90 minutes in a car that was either stopped or slow moving, and all they had was … each other.

That was plenty. Their imagination and conversation skills were in high gear.

Hmm. No smartphones. No screens. Increased brain activity and social skills. Coincidence?

Here are the thoughts of psychology professor Jim Taylor:

In generations past, for example, children directed considerable amounts of their time to reading, an activity that offered few distractions and required intense and sustained attention, imagination, and memory.

The advent of television altered that attention by offering children visual stimuli, fragmented attention, and little need for imagination.

Then the Internet was invented and children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited.

We seem to be raising fewer readers, and more children looking to be “distracted,” i.e., passively entertained. It is a trend that has been ongoing for decades.

I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s (and remember the big day when we replaced our black-and-white television with a color model). I read books, but I also became glued to the set, as my parents liked to say. I could watch show after show, and my parents allowed me. I can only imagine what would have happened if there were video games, the Internet, and smartphones back then.

College broke me of the television habit. Not only did I not have time for much TV, but I enjoyed reading and writing.

That mindset continued when my wife and I began a family. My poor kids were deprived. There was the occasional Disney movie on video tape (then DVD), but real entertainment was a trip to the library, or reading stories aloud before bed.

And they bought into it.

Screen time is limited in our house and, recently, we cut the cable. As for our deprived kids, three have graduated college (two with master’s degrees), two are in college, and the rest are thriving. But, academics aside, the real benefit is that they are happy kids. They can engage in conversations, and they can entertain themselves.

Yes, I know, it sounds like a typical dad bragging – the process has not been perfect – but this is more an observation, based on years of not relying on the so-called joys of technology. And I know we are not alone.

That traffic jam my kids and I experienced the other day … it followed a session at The Telling Room in Portland, an amazing, non-profit organization that advocates writing and storytelling skills in children. That afternoon, I sat through an hour of kids, ages 6 to 18, reading excerpts from their work. Imagination and attention at its finest. No electronic distractions needed.

Kids who focus on the screen become addicted to the screen. (I know from experience.) Kids who focus on written and spoken words, become so much more.

And it comes in handy during those traffic jams.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.