A bit of tech talk

A bit of tech talk

I remember getting my weekly allowance on Friday after I got home from school.

I remember getting my weekly allowance on Friday after I got home from school. It was five dollars, and I never saved any of it.

“Don’t spend it all at the arcade,” my father said every week.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t.”

Soon after, as he was listening to the hourly news on CBC, I jumped on my bike, made my way to the nearest shopping mall, and proceeded to cash in my entire allowance for arcade tokens at Johnny Zees. It was a half-hour of increased dopamine (and possibly oxytocin), and it was awesome.

I had my favourites: Golden Axe, Altered Beast and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early years; Need For Speed, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat in the later years. I could have played all weekend, but five dollars only goes so far (even in those days). All good things must come to an end…

I remember playing Goldeneye on the N64 with my friends: four gangly teenage boys, two large pepperoni pizzas, a bag of Cheetos, and a case of Dr. Pepper. We had pooled our resources, made the long trek to the rental store, safely tucked the machine and game in a backpack, and returned victorious from the hunt. I always wanted to play James Bond, but everyone else wanted to play Oddjob because he was difficult to hit and had his deadly razor-edged bowler hat. It was a mind-numbing time and, despite overdosing on Cheetos, it was always lots of fun. We were determined to play as much as possible before the weekend was over, and were convinced we could continue living this way for weeks, but all good things must come to an end…

…Or do they? While shopping mall arcades and video rental stores have long disappeared, we now have unlimited access to video games (and other forms of on-screen entertainment) without leaving the confines of our home. Children of any age can entertain themselves all day every day without any end in sight. This is why the average child spends 7.5 hours a day starring at a screen.

My childhood was certainly punctuated with screens. But there was also a healthy dose of all-day adventures in the nearby woods. I explored caves, picked blackberries, and raced down mountain trails on my bicycle. I climbed trees taller than my house, ran with sharp sticks, and played flashlight tag when the streetlights came on. Most children today do none of these things.

This is in part because parents today fear the outside world. They are afraid of speeding cars or hungry bears or sudden gusts of gravity, and this prevents children from taking age-appropriate risks. Communities need to support a variety of safe venues that encourage the development of real relationships over those online, and parents need to be comfortable with unsupervised play. It doesn’t help that some small towns rely solely on organized team sports to keep youth away from engaging in nefarious activities, and unfortunately, adults spend as much (if not more) time on screens than children.

We want our children to be tech-savvy, but rarely do we criticize the power that technology has over us. I could detail the negative effects that screen time has on the developing brain or the link between screen time and mental health, but the biggest issue is the decreasing amount of quality time we are spending with our children. Within the last ten years especially, I have seen groups of friends and family that choose to disengage with each other in favour of their devices. Seldom do we have tech talks with our children. Seldom do families leave their machines at home and go walking around the neighbourhood or in the woods, and too often the only sign of life after the sun goes down is the blue flicker that shines into the empty streets.

I like my MacBook. I like Netflix. I occasionally try my hand at a video game, even though my youngest son always kicks my butt. (I introduced him to Goldeneye recently and lost every round.) I worry that Nicholas spends too much time on the screen, but then he balances it out with long walks, wildlife photography, and the collected works of James Joyce.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in the next ten years. I’m optimistic that a counter-culture will emerge and successfully re-balance our infatuation with technology. My oldest son has no interest in video games or Netflix. Adam would rather spend his time sitting in cafés debating politics and trading Thelonious Monk records. He frequents used books stores, writes the rough copy of his essays on a typewriter, and experiments with sourdough starters. He may be on to something.