A New York Times article about childhood got stuck in my craw this summer; it might still be there. School had just started for my 11-year old daughter. A truly delightful summer of outdoor camps, water-skiing, library reading clubs, family vacations, and Girl Scout adventures was coming to an end. My daughter, excited about beginning fifth grade, her last year in elementary school, was busy making plans to run for treasurer of the student council.
Then my father emailed me a link to Op-ed Contributor Joel Bakan’s August 21, 2011 article, “The Kids Are Not All Right
,” with my father’s own comment attached: “Something really serious herein.” Being the attentive parent (and daughter) that I like to think I am, I read on.
Bakan begins with an almost apocalyptic description of his own family life: “When I sit with my two teenagers, and they are a million miles away, absorbed by the titillating roil of online social life, the addictive pull of video games and virtual worlds, as they stare endlessly at video clips and digital pictures of themselves and their friends, it feels like something is wrong.” Indeed, Bakan posits, “There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.”
Granted, Bakan goes on to make a mostly compelling case for why we need to continue efforts to protect children from dangerous corporate interests. And I mostly agree with him.
But the picture Bakan paints of childhood in order to make his case is far, far from my own family’s experience and that of our friends. And I’m tired of all this hysteria and hyperbole about all things social media. In fact, I think Bakan exploits the notion of a childhood under attack to scare folks into action. We need to protect our children always, but not because every last child is under assault from terrifying technology executives who want to eat their brains through broadband.
The childhood I see in my home and in the homes of my daughter’s friends may be a new
normal, but it’s still pretty normal. She has no interest in email. She likes a few video games, mostly those recommended by her teachers and friends that involve some cognitive work. She likes Cut the Rope and the fairies on Disney.com, which are certainly not educational, but kids still get to play just for fun, right? She plays outside, swings in the front yard, shoots baskets on the driveway, and rides her bike through the neighborhood looking for her friends. She loves to swim and read and draw. She did find the password-protected social networking site set up by her Girl Scout troop leader intriguing. And yes, she loves television, and so we limit her viewing time, which usually earns us protests, groans, and eye rolls.
Technology and social media are a big part of our lives, but they are not sucking the life out of my daughter’s childhood. On the contrary, the keyboarding skills and hand/eye coordination she exercises online, we are told, enhance her capacity to compensate for her reading disability.
I admit that in a few years when my daughter is fully an adolescent, I may be eating my words. I hope not. I do think that teens manage social relationships in a completely different way than we did when were teens. Not only are their tools novel to us, but their patterns of behavior are different. Different, not necessarily bad. I think of the teens with whom many young clergy work today in our churches. Are they in such a despairing state about childhood like Bakan? I doubt it.
Do teens need parental guidance? Of course. Can youth ministers help? Indeed. But can’t we stop making these over the top universal claims about “childhood in crisis” long enough to recognize a new normal, try to shape it for the benefit of our children, and maybe even learn from it? That’s what’s stuck in my craw. Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.