Every few days my iPhone tells me how much screen time I’ve used. The ratio changes from week to week, and I feel lazy and unproductive if the hours are high.
But then I remember our screens giving us the day’s news and the weather. They give us our bank balance and show us pictures of friends. The screens give us directions from our house to someone else’s house in another city, and they tell us how long it takes to get there.
These days, I guess most of us are using more screen time than ever before as we face a pandemic, protests, storms, and elections that heat up daily like fires. on the West Coast. If you want to stay calm, a friend said, don’t look at your screen first thing in the morning. But there is too much going on. The screen wins.
The time spent in front of a screen meant something else. At the end of the summer days when I was a child, screens were attached to the doors and they slammed open and closed all day. Once school started, the banging stopped. One house we lived in had a screened porch where we ate lunch and played cards. The mosquito nets kept out mosquitoes and let in the breeze. Screen time was on every time we were there.
Screen time once meant cartoons on a black and white TV screen. When kids’ shows like Romper Room or Captain Kangaroo came on, I dressed to watch because my big sister told me the people behind the screen were watching us too, and I believed her. All these decades later, it seems more true than ever.
We didn’t play games on a screen, although we would have if they had existed at the time. We played board games on the living room floor. The monopoly took forever but had counterfeit money that we could use when we were playing at the grocery store. Parcheesi had too many rules, but the dice came in little velvet bags in which we hid our treasures. The checkers were clean and straightforward, like an easier version of chess.
My own kids played the same games plus new ones like “Candy Land”. I used to cheat so I could pass earlier, but they still caught me. Their screen time was to watch cartoons and Saturday morning sitcoms like “The Brady Bunch” and “Fantasy Island”. They didn’t have screens in their bedrooms, but they would sneak into the den to watch the big screen when they were supposed to be sleeping. Computer screens were for the boring workplace, not for entertainment. Watching a screen would have been as boring as watching the paint dry. But all that has changed. The screens now come with bells and whistles.
A friend of mine owns a toy store, The Toy Place Downtown. Over the years, she has noticed that too much screen time reduces the attention span of her young customers to a five-second tweet. She wants to slow down the roll, as she puts it, so the kids have to focus, engage in a board game or puzzle, and solve problems.
She sells a game called “Exact Change” so that 5 year olds can learn that money comes in the form of coins and bills and not just mom’s magic card. Another game called “Pay Day” does the same.
When children step out of their screens, they see the real world around them. They even go out, climb trees and race with each other. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but then she runs an old-fashioned toy store. She can’t create a pre-screen world for her young clients, but it’s her mission to try.