A Virtual Childhood

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The Article

Last week the stick was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame. It met all their criteria for a great toy: it’s been around for a long time, and it inspires unstructured, imaginative play. As columnist Jonah Goldberg commented, perhaps the Mighty Snowball is next.

When I read the story I initially thought it was a ridiculous publicity ploy. But after thinking about it, I changed my mind. Those days of long ago when kids were content to play outside with sticks seem awfully idyllic compared to last week when 15-year-old Brandon Crisp’s body was identified. The Barrie boy disappeared after his family, in desperation, confiscated his Xbox. Brandon felt like his life was over, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The whole tragic episode has made me think about computer games in a new way. I don’t think we parents understand how real the computer world is to our kids. We may think it’s crazy, lazy, and pathetic, but to them it’s their whole life.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just put up with it. Crisp’s parents did have to take action, because besides the obvious danger from predators online, there’s a great psychological danger to living solely a technological life. Online, it doesn’t matter if you’re shy, or ugly, or small, you can pretend to be something else. Imagine if you could recreate your whole persona. Wouldn’t you feel powerful? That’s why computer games and the internet can become so addictive.

Ultimately, though, these virtual relationships aren’t grounded in reality. Online friends don’t actually interact with the real us. There’s no accountability. There’s no honesty. There’s no transparency. And thus there’s no real friendship. Of course, teens rarely have face-to-face relationships characterized by honesty, transparency and accountability, either. But that is the goal that we are eventually striving for, and the more children get lost in a virtual world, the harder it will be to form these true relationships later.

But these relationships, as unreal as they are, still fill a void in their lives. Due to safety concerns, we don’t let kids play outside; we keep them corralled inside. And because of our schedules it’s harder to have play dates, so our children spend an inordinate amount of time alone. Many kids, being shuffled back and forth between two sets of parents, don’t even feel like they have a place that’s just theirs. Online, though, they can carve out a corner of their world that is stable. Computer time fills a valuable role.

And that’s why, if we’re going to deny them technology time, we had better have a back-up plan. We can’t expect children to just limit technology time on their own. First of all, people need help to break real addictions, and many of our children are honestly addicted. But we also need to realize the reason why they are addicted: they need interaction, and right now the computer is the easiest way to get it.

So if you want your kids in the real world instead of the virtual one, you’re going to have to engage them yourself. How about planning a family night, when you play games together? Or join the YMCA, and play basketball together or go swimming? Sure the kids may complain, but if you adopt new habits, eventually they’ll come around. Or what about inviting another family over for dinner so your children have the chance for real socializing? For that matter, what about simply eating together as a family and sharing your day?

Our kids are turning online because it’s more enticing than the outside world. Ultimately, though, the virtual world isn’t real. It’s just addicting. And if we’re going to break that addiction, we’re going to have to invest more time into the family. We can’t expect our children to develop healthy leisure habits if we won’t do it with them. They learn by example. So before you switch off that Xbox, switch on something else. Fill that void, and maybe our kids will come back to the real world.

S. Wray Gregoire
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