Alarming Decline of Quality Youth Playtime

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What are your kids going to do after school today? More homework? Hopefully not too much of that. What I mean is after they’ve finished their homework? Do they have time to play? If so, what kind of things will they be doing? Does it really matter? Does this video change your mind?

I suspect that the hit Netflix show, Stranger Things, resonated with so many adults for one primary reason: it brought them back to the carefree and wonder-filled days of youth back in the 80’s. I know that is exactly what I liked so much about the show. The story line itself was a bit “meh” in my opinion. But the characters, the bike riding, the exploring through the forests surrounding their town, the Dungeons and Dragons sessions, and the general running around and getting into trouble with friends is what made it such a fun show for me. (Disclaimer: I would definitely recommend watching it using a filtering service like VidAngel as the language and some of the content is definitely not family friendly!)

In case you’re not in a position to watch the above video presently, I’ll describe it briefly. An interviewer asks three generations what they did to play when they were growing up. The oldest generation talks about being outside, picking blueberries, growing watermelons, sledding down snow-covered hills, and more. The middle generation related that they did much of the same, including running from door to door, gathering friends and playing street games or night games.

The shocking part comes when the youngest generation in this video is asked the same questions. The discussion almost completely revolves around electronic devices and video games. One child states, “I’d die without my tablet.” Another child explains that he only feels normal when he’s playing video games. The same boy boasts that he watched 23 episodes of a TV series in less than 4 days.

Who is to Blame for Kids’ Technology Addictions?

It’s easy to shake our heads when watching this video and think to ourselves “Geez! Kids today! What is wrong with them?” I know that is frequently my first reaction. However, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and I really do think that it’s quite a bit more complex than just blaming kids for being lazy.

The Parent’s Role

Let’s face it, we’ve heard a lot about “helicopter parents” over the last few years. And even though it’s hard to admit, most of us have allowed ourselves to become overly protective parents to a great extent. Still, there are many factors out there that contribute to this technology crisis that faces this rising generation. But ultimately, we are in control of what our children are exposed to and what activities they engage in.

As I think back to my childhood (particularly during the summer break), most days my parents had no idea where we were at. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona that was surrounded by the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. There were vast expanses of wilderness directly behind my house. On summer days, my friends and I would get on our dirt bikes and follow miles of game trails all through the forest and up to the base of the volcanic boulder mountain where we would drop our bikes and climb massive rocks and cliffs until sunset. It was glorious!

Were my parents negligent to allow us such freedom? Personally, I don’t think so, based on the fact that most of my friends had parents with similar parenting styles. Many of these adults had been raised with the same type of autonomy when they were kids. They were just patterning their own parent’s parenting styles.

Give Kids Some Room to Make Mistakes

Today, however, if I were to learn that my young kids had left the house in the early morning by themselves to rock climb, explore the forest and encounter heaven-knows-what out in the woods, I’d probably start hyperventilating. I mean, they could get hurt! Some predator could be out in the woods and could haul them away. A wild animal could attack them and drag them off. They could fall down a cliff, never to be seen again. There are so many things that could go wrong!

So what’s my knee-jerk solution as a parent? Sadly, it’s to keep them at home. When they complain that they’re bored? Tell them to read a book or play a board game. When those get old? Turn on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. And since Netflix has a “kids area” where we can allow them to watch shows more tailored for kids, we feel safe allowing them some freedom to choose what they want to watch. In the meantime, comfortable that our kids are safe at home, we disappear into our home offices and five hours pass before we realize that the kids haven’t moved off of the couch that whole time. Thus, the results of the Nature Valley video above.

So yeah, I get it. It’s very tempting to protect our kids from every conceivable risk out there. But everyone, kids included, need some room to make mistakes and occasionally even get hurt. Immersing them in a virtual world where no physical harm can ever occur sounds good at first. But the danger of them becoming so inexperienced and unprepared for the real world may be an even greater danger than we’ve ever imagined.

Technology of Today

Another huge contributor to this problem of our children becoming chained to electronic devices is the technology itself. There is mounting evidence and research that indicates that our kids are in the crosshairs of not-exactly-benign corporations who see them as huge profit centers.

Of course, even in the 80’s we had video games (Atari, Nintendo, Sega, etc.). Those games were fun of course. But they were nothing like the games today which are designed by multi-million dollar companies who hire PhD level psychologists to help create games that are wildly popular and addicting. These games can be so immersive, psychologically stimulating and satisfying, that when compared to real life, it’s no wonder our kids never make it into the outdoors. I’ve been sucked in myself. There was a time when I allowed myself to be sucked into video gaming that led me into 3 a.m. video game session when I knew I had to be to work the next day by 8 a.m. It was crazy that the games were so appealing to me that I was willing to slog through a full day of work on less than 5 hours of sleep. And this was when I was a much younger twenty-something who most likely had developed a much better sense of responsibility and understanding of consequences than the typical teenager.

Social Media and Smart Devices

Of course, it’s not just video games that suck youth and adults in. Social media, YouTube, streaming video services like NetFlix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Even cable news and sports networks feed us a constant steady diet of highly entertaining, and yes, addicting content. How many of us have binged watched until the wee hours of the morning a show on NetFlix? I remember the first time I binge-watched a series and how amazed I was at my lack of self-control to just turn the TV off! It was the WB series exploring the early days of Superman “Smallville.” It was a fun, but ultimately worthless entertainment experience. I remember thinking to myself, “I can never get those hours of my life back. Was that really worth it in the end?”

Add to that the fact that children are receiving (at increasingly earlier ages) powerful computers that fit into the palms of their hands that allow 24/7 access to this type of entertainment and social engagement, and you’ve got what we’re seeing today. Something akin to the oft-cited zombie apocalypse!

Making it Real

So, yes. I think our children are up against a massive hurdle with regard to technology. The entertainment is better and more entertaining. And the availability of it is beyond anything we’ve ever experienced. When I grew up, I watched cartoons on Saturday morning. By 10 a.m., the stations had switched their programming to soap operas (gag!), daytime game shows, or Judge Judy type content. There was nothing to be entertained by in the house anymore. So we went outside whether it was cold or hot! Anything to address the oppressive boredom.

And guess what? We had fun most of the time. We got hurt, skinned knees, cuts from climbing trees, and even an occasional fist fight between friends when a pick-up basketball game got a little out of hand. But we learned about human interactions in those experiences too. Overall, we experienced the world as it existed. Not as some programmer out in Silicon Valley designed it.

Despite these challenges, this rising generation is not lost. As parents, we still have a great deal of potential influence over our children. It isn’t easy, but there are still many things we can do to ensure that our kids have good, quality playtime. Playtime grounded in reality – not virtual reality.

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, the aged 1980’s photo at the top of this page is of my best friend growing up, Jim Dillon, and me probably sometime after Christmas checking out each other’s Christmas presents. He was the one that I had so many of my childhood adventures with. I still sometimes can’t resist the temptation to slap on a photo-ruining cheesy smile. But man, I’m digging those sweatsuits!

How to Actually Improve Playtime

Just Unplug

Perhaps this sounds too simple. But I’m telling you, it works. Yes, there may be anger, tears, begging, and even lots of flailing of limbs. In fact, does this video feel at all familiar to any parents out there? My whole family got a huge kick out of this because we saw so many reflections of ourselves in it:

We’ve all seen it. But come on. As a parent, we know that we have to do hard things. And taking away phones, unplugging video came consoles, setting parental restrictions on streaming devices and smartphones is just part of parenting today. If you’re not doing it, then you are simply conceding your parenting obligations to a stranger who you’ve never met who has no concern for your child beyond what revenue that child can generate for them. Take control and reduce the amount of time your kids are immersed in technology. It’s really that simple.

Create Meaningful Technology Replacements

So now that you’ve helped your kids unplug, what should they do? Here are a few ideas:

Get them a bike, skateboard, or roller blades and introduce them to a new skill.Enroll them (and maybe a friend or two if you can convince them) in a local Girl Scouting or Boy Scouting organization.Sign them up for art classesHave them join a community choirEnroll them in youth sports leaguesMartial Arts (Karate Kid, anyone?)Help them start a snow-shoveling business or lawn mowing businessPlant a garden or build grow-boxes to teach them the miracle of small-scale real food productionTalk to some like-minded friends and brainstorm some play-dates for your kids at a local park or swimming pool.Teach your kids how to responsibly spend money so they feel empowered to walk down to the corner store with friends and buy a Slurpee when they feel like it.Buy a rocket launching set or kites and help them get started in a hobby that they’ve never considered.Introduce them to stamp or coin collecting. Call up some family cousins and schedule some time for them to come over and have a Nerf dart-gun war.Teach them how to cook or prepare their favorite treat or dessert.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. Sit down with your spouse or your family and brainstorm for a while. Pick up a calendar, and start penciling some of your ideas into the calendar. That way, the next time your kids say “We’re bored!” you can immediately pick up your list or your calendar and say “Great. I’ve got a plan.” For more ideas, check out an earlier article I wrote about how our family does this.

There will be resistance, I can assure you. But I can also assure you that your kids will look back on their childhoods with much more fondness than if you just leave them to their electronics. Spend time together. Spend time away from home. Get them out of the house and let them explore the real world. Your kids will have plenty of time in their adult lives to be lost in the virtual world.

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