The Past Is a Different Country

We inhabit a world of screens. When I watch my daughter’s half-hour swimming lessons from the gallery of our local pool, I am surrounded by very small children clutching tablets or iPhones – waiting while their older siblings swim – each absorbed in their own separate, bright flashing world. I understand that the swimming pool is a dull hot place to be stuck – sitting still – when you are three. And not all cartoons are pernicious, (you couldn’t accuse Peppa Pig of much apart from relentless banality). But it makes me uneasy to notice that we allow our children to be so deeply influenced by screens.

In the 1980’s, Germaine Greer commented – “Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves; when that right is pre-empted it is called brain-washing,” (The Times, London, 1986). Greer – who never expects anyone to mindlessly agree with her – is a shining example of someone who stubbornly refuses to have thoughts put into her head. But Greer was born in 1939 and grew up in Melbourne, making her own entertainment on the beach: as she comments in the recent BBC documentary – “my childhood was a long remembered boredom.” (Germaine Bloody Greer, BBC Two June 2018).

I am not saying that enforced boredom is good for children. But they have to be able to be bored. In boredom we encounter our own thoughts and we learn the difference between what has been put into our heads, and what is our own. Screens fill up the gaps, they banish boredom – at least boredom with the real-world. As a result, 21st Century children have little space for thoughts that don’t come from their screens.

Children in Great Britain are less physically free than they were in the 1950’s; they can’t run free like the children in Just William or Swallows and Amazons. I remember being a child, wondering when that bit of childhood would start – when was I going to go out on my own and make bows and arrows? But in a North London terrace in the 1980’s that wasn’t really possible, so I didn’t encounter the outside world for myself until later.

But, the confinement of a child growing up in the 21st Century is worse – more hours spent glued to a screen. Glued to a screen no matter where you are! In the 80’s I was free to be bored when there was nothing on telly, or when I was out somewhere. I was free to stare at the flies buzzing inside my lampshade; to arrange and re-arrange my plastic animals; to look around the swimming pool while my brother had a lesson and wonder about the out-of-use diving boards and ‘No Petting!’ sign, (pets in a pool? I never saw them).

It feels like work these days just to get your kids away from screens. It’s hard to find reliable statistics, but it’s clear that children are spending more time than ever watching and playing games – “Children aged five to 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen compared with around three hours in 1995, according to market research firm Childwise,” (BBC, March 2015). And there has been the recent WHO warning about computer game addiction, (BBC, June 2018). Of course parents worry about screen-time, but there is  no conclusive research (it’s too early for that) and a lot of conflicting advice. It is common to impose limits on screen-time. Famously, Steve Jobs, the man behind the iPhone, didn’t let his own children have one! (Independent, 2016) Not all screen-time is bad, but it seems like a terrible idea to allow children to expect constant entertainment: to be unacquainted with quietness and the slow-pace of reality.

And, because screens are everywhere, ideas communicated by the media have immense power over children. Very young girls cannot escape ideas about what females are supposed to be like. Women in the media these days may include chicks who can do stuff, but on the whole they conform to narrow physical types. There is a clear message that it is important to look sexy. Susie Orbach writes about the effects of 21st Century images of femininity on the adult clients she sees in therapy – “…When I first started [1970’s], not every woman had an eating issue; not everybody had a body dysmorphic problem. Now everybody does, but they don’t bother to talk about it. It’s beyond depressing. It’s hateful, really, what the culture has done.” (Guardian, 2016) It’s no surprise then that so many suggestible young people  – girls and boys – end up with eating problems. How can children accept what they look like when they have compared themselves to celebrities and Disney characters from the age of five?

Young people are habituated to passive consumption of the media before they can speak properly. So how could they “invent themselves”? They can only choose which characters to copy. We need to give our children the gift of boredom.

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