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My Bose QuietComfort headphones are great for blocking out the engine hum of a commercial aircraft, but they’re useless when it comes to masking the sounds of two preteen boys at home on summer vacation.
My older son is leading some sort of military campaign through the game world. He yells commands into his headset: “Fall in. Fall in! Now cover me. Go, go, go, go!” I hear the click-clack of the Cherry MX Blue switches on his mechanical keyboard, and I regret how few opportunities he gets to practice his leadership skills when he’s not role-playing at his desk.
Meanwhile, his younger brother has been planted in front of the Xbox since waking up this morning. He’s screaming at the top of his lungs: “Don’t take my loot. I mean it! Why are you doing this? Stop. Stop it!” He seems angry and frustrated. But then, just as quickly as he can maneuver between the items in his inventory, his disposition turns affable — like he just drank a chug jug of giggle juice.
All day, I’m bombarded by the sounds of Fortnite: Battle Royale. And it’s not just my kids I’m hearing. Everywhere I go, everyone seems to be talking about it. Epic Games claims there are now 125 million players. MarketWatch reports that Fortnite is constantly discussed among corporate executives and earnings analysts. On the beach, during dinner parties, at backyard barbecues, grown-ups are fixated on this videogame. But most parents are not playing it. Instead, they drop bait into the conversation — words like “obsession” and “addiction.”
I can tell they’re fishing for an expert opinion. They know I’ve been researching and writing a book about the new childhood, and they want to lure me into condemning the game. But I don’t bite.
Grown-ups are ashamed of how poorly we have handled our own transition into the digital era, and we’re taking it out on our kids.
One sanctimommy desperately tries to reel me in: “Did you hear about the American Heart Association? They just issued a warning about kids and videogames.” She tosses a passive-aggressive glance toward my son, who’s slouching on the sofa and fixated on his Nintendo Switch. Sure, I’ve read the advisory she’s talking about: Some doctors blame the games for promoting “sedentary behaviors.” I could refute it with a simple philosophy lesson in causality or a paranoid conspiracy theory about big pharma. Instead, I keep quiet.
Remember the moral panic around Minecraft? Then Pokémon Go? And also, Roblox? Things move at Sonic the Hedgehog speed in this connected world. My kids already talk about Club Penguin the way I talk about Friendster and MySpace. And that’s all the evidence I need to know that the window for resisting digital play has already closed. After all, nostalgia is never about accuracy; narratives of the past are how humans frame meaningful objectives for the future. So, if our kids are already constructing their sentimental pop-culture origin stories — if their virtual multiplayer lives have a legacy — video games aren’t going anywhere. At this point, almost half a century since the original release of Pong, gaming is a solid fixture of childhood.
Of course, parents already know this. That’s what makes us uncomfortable. We’re not sure how to raise our children in a world that looks so unlike the one we grew up in. There are no clear best practices. And all our memories of youthful successes and failures feel like inadequate preparation for such an unfamiliar technological context.
We would know precisely what to do if we could just eliminate the screens. That’s why so many of us opt for the on/off-switch approach. We enforce limits and restrictions. But I don’t think these screen-time rules are just about our kids’ well-being. There is also the issue of our grown-up comfort levels. We’re hoping to minimize our doubt, insecurity, and anxiety by maximizing the number of moments in our home lives that resemble what we’ve seen in the movies and on TV sitcoms, what we’ve read in magazine articles and self-help books.
We are not sure how to raise our kids in a world that looks so unlike the one we grew up in.
Drive the kids to soccer practice. Play catch on the front lawn. Emulate the signage at Target that tells you which yoga pants to wear while pushing a stroller. Cook a healthy and balanced family dinner. Bake birthday cakes. And run together on the beach, through knee-high surf, laughing and splashing the whole time.
Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned family vacation, anyway? Walking with my son along the boardwalk this past weekend, I could still hear a bad cover band playing Jimmy Buffet tunes.
The smell of either funnel cake or fried clam strips was blended with the coco-sweet aroma of sunscreen. But aside from the nauseating sensory stimuli, these were not the beach days of my youth. I saw kids getting henna tattoos of the Fortnite logo. And on Instagram, one friend tried to capture her trip to the iconic natural bridge on the coast of Santa Cruz, but somehow the game still managed to photobomb her picture-perfect memory. It seems there’s no escaping Fortnite, even on vacation.
Actually, there’s no escaping screen time in general. Not on vacation, not in the evenings, not anywhere. And the truth is that our parental sense of discomfort has little to do with our kids’ behavior. Instead, it’s a product of the guilt we feel when we cram our adult downtime full of social media that’s overflowing with narcissism, advertising, belligerent political discourse, or sickeningly saccharine expressions of pseudospiritual values: “Inhale tacos. Exhale negativity. #Namaste.”
It’s about the remorse we feel while responding to all those after-dinner emails — our eyes and thumbs locked into our smartphones, even while we sit with our children on the living room sofa. Do we really believe that we’re all allowed to be ruthlessly ambitious workaholics, provided it adds up to an idyllic family beach vacation? No, we’re teeming with anxiety about the choices we’ve made.
Grown-ups are ashamed of how poorly we have handled our own transition into the digital era. We’re now discovering how badly managed this connected civilization has become, and sadly, we’re taking it out on our kids. We’re scolding them for mirroring our shortcomings, making our failures apparent, highlighting our disillusionment. How else can one explain the unbelievably illogical leap that even the experts in child development are willing to make?
The real challenge is teaching them how to live with screens.
We’ve got a century’s worth of research that tells us kids should play as much as possible. It’s how they build executive function and self-regulation skills, not to mention a plethora of other social and emotional aptitudes. Are parents really supposed to believe that this one kind of play is problematic? Learning and growing will always happen within specific historical, technological, and cultural contexts. There is no neutral, no pure and uncorrupted version of child’s play, no Garden of Eden jungle gym. Videogames do not represent our children’s fall from grace. If anything, it’s the opposite.
The world is going to keep changing, and it will always be the parents who cannot adapt their child-rearing practices accordingly who end up looking negligent in retrospect. So we should all stop complaining about Fortnite. Recognize that videogames, smartphones, tablets, and social media are not the problem. Instead, it’s the fact that we’re failing to provide our kids with a values-based model for integrating digital technology into their lives. We’re not teaching them how to do it better than we did, how to correct our mistakes.
If life were like playing a videogame, then our job would be to prepare the next generation to beat the levels that we couldn’t, to overcome the obstacles that shut us down. We’d need to pass the controllers to our kids and teach them everything we’ve learned so far about how to play the game. As a 21st-century dad, this is my task: to raise sons who are prepared to level up, to thrive in this connected world.
I want my boys to be kind, compassionate, thoughtful, resourceful, productive, ethical, and fulfilled. And while I know it’s important that they play outdoors, talk to real people in the flesh, do arts and crafts projects, and build sandcastles, that’s not the hard part. The real challenge is teaching them how to live with screens. But I struggle to find opportunities to model good etiquette, to demonstrate conscionable behavior for online life. I worry that their heroes are YouTubers and Twitch streamers about whom I know little or nothing at all.
Think about when kids fight on the playground. Grown-ups intervene; we teach them how to talk it out, how to articulate their feelings, how to resolve their conflicts. Where is the game-world equivalent? When kids have bad table manners, we correct them. When they’re cruel and hostile to their siblings, we arbitrate. But when they’re playing Fortnite, we leave them to their own devices.
That’s the wrong approach. Instead, we desperately need to start showing our children what it looks like when people use powerful, networked tools in ways that facilitate positive, respectful, and creative discourse. But to do that, we’ll need to log on with our kids.
So, I turned off the e-reader, climbed out of the bathtub, and sat down next to my boys on the living room floor.
“Teach me how to play Fortnite,” I said.
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