A Real Achievement

My kids know I love them, and that’s maybe all I can hope to accomplish as a parent. All the other goals I set, consciously and unconsciously, might be beyond my control. Those boys are free agents. They have their own personalities and their own ideas, and they will do and pursue the things that interest them. As long as they know that I love them.

Like every other parent I know, my wife and I do a lot of hand-wringing over how much time our kids spend on screens. This year, school is a screen, and when school is over, homework is a screen, and when homework is done, the entertainment they crave most is also a screen. We talk about the dangers of this paradigm all the time, and nothing changes. We turn Internet access off for hours at a time, and as soon as it’s restored, life is a screen again.

I watched a hell of a lot of television when I was a kid. Too much. I feel lucky now that television in the ’70s and ’80s wasn’t that good. There wasn’t very much of it, all told, and what there was certainly didn’t cater to my demographic. If there were shows I really wanted to see, I had to meet their schedules. TV was massively compelling, but also a bit of work.

Today’s digital entertainment is limitless, on-demand, and of whatever quality you find compelling. If you’re a kid, there are people making shows of all sorts for you. There are even other kids making things for you to watch or play.

When I was a kid, it was often boredom that drove me out the door. That’s what my wife and I are trying to foster by turning off the internet, some level of creative boredom. I bring this up as a good reminder that I am not better than my kids because I played outside more. I was just more bored than they are.

Entertainment has become more Machiavellian in its pursuit of people’s attention, applying psychological techniques and advanced algorythmic profiling to keep humans glued to their screens. Some might call it manipulation, rather than entertainment. I would. I like to tell myself that the TV producers of yesteryear really wanted to make the shows they made, but that’s rewriting history. They wanted to make money, and they would have used whatever advantage was to hand to do it.

I guess what it amounts to is that each of us has a certain amount of attention we can pay during a given day, and that out there in the digital ether, companies have commoditized that span of attention, capturing it and selling it to the highest bidder, as we always knew they would.

With humanity, all things must reach their logical conclusions.

It feels to me very much like success, as a parent, would be delivering humans into independent adulthood who were less dependent on digital entertainment, who had more attention span for the people they really, really love, maybe even their own kids. But that’s an achievement beyond my control. I share the outdoors with them, and get the response one would expect from teenage boys. I remind myself it’s a long game. I’m only planting seeds now. I can’t hope to see results until the boys are gone, out in the world on their own, and then maybe it will be them telling their friends to turn off a phone and come outside.

I can dream. I do.