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Kids Adrift in a Media World

I remember well enough my own boyhood in the America of the 1950s to know that I'd have considered it paradise to have available the abundance of video games and cable-TV channels and videotaped movies that typical American children have today.

Yet now I wonder if this cornucopia of diversions is the blessing that, as a boy, I'd have thought it to be.

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For one thing, I'm concerned about the effects of spending as much time as many children do nowadays in a fantasy world.

I regard the human imagination as a sacred realm. But however rich an imaginary world, it is essential that children's experience grounds them in reality.

When our cultural development transforms occasional story-telling around the fire into hours daily in front of some screen, might not the growing child fail to get his feet well-planted on the ground?

Stories were told in a previous era of country folk attending the theater and, not really grasping that the action was not real, inappropriately shouting out warnings to the characters on the stage.

Our children may have the opposite problem: Growing up so immersed in man-made representations of reality that their habits will lead them to stand by as spectators as if the world swirling around them were just an elaborate movie concocted for their entertainment.

When you add to this immersion in pre-fabricated imaginary worlds how much more the landscape in which we live is shaped and governed by human plans rather than by natural processes, the problem of a mental diet over-rich in artifice is magnified. Taking a left turn at the light is not the experiential equivalent of ducking under the low-lying branch or climbing over the boulder. Humankind developed originally to be in a direct, physical relationship with an earth not paved over nor carved into rectangles by us.

We are not the Creator, however wonderful some of our creations may be. And, of course, a great many of those creations consumed by our children are not so wonderful. GI Joe's world is not shaped by the wisdom found in the fables of Aesop, and the "Goosebumps" books do not reflect the understanding of human life that's embedded in the "Little House on the Prairie" books. The latest rock hit does not offer what's found in Bach or in a traditional hymn. And a shopping mall does not reflect the range of consciousness displayed in the Louvre.

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But perhaps even more important than any of these dimensions of the problem is how the abundance of entertainments leads to an imbalance between activity and passivity in the lives of many of our children.

These imaginary realms in which our children are dwelling are not, after all, the products of their own imaginative faculties.

How easy it is simply to ride along a track laid out by others. The movie starts unreeling, and we are carried along. The video game defines your goals and tools, and places you on a course of pre-determined obstacles. A book - even a good book - carries the reader along a sequence of experiences decided by another.

So what's the matter with that?

Learning to peer inside oneself

Nothing, if this mode of being borne along by the will of another is kept in a proper balance with the very different experience of deciding one's own purposes and discovering one's own path toward meeting them. But how many of today's children are finding that proper balance?

Their "workdays" are spent in schools, and it is a rare school indeed that encourages its students to be active agents in their own learning processes. To most of our schools, what the students may have a passion to know, and how they want to go about learning it, are not matters of concern. In schools, in other words, our children spend most of their time doing what they are told. The knowledge of how to peer inside oneself and discover one's purpose and then move out in pursuit of it isn't being imparted.

Worthwhile excitement

There's nothing new in that, of course. But in earlier eras, once school was over, children were much more likely than now to be compelled, if they were to find interesting things to do, to invent their own activities.

When I was a boy, if we wanted excitement, we'd have to organize and often even invent our own games. Much less was provided to us ready-made. And so we had at least some experience of having to ask ourselves: "What can we create from where we are now that will feel worthwhile to do?"

The whole idea of figuring out one's own goals and creating one's own activity is foreign to children living in this age of rampant media.

When a kid says "I'm bored" nowadays, it is not so much a self-description - much less a challenge the child is presenting to himself - as it is a complaint. The subtext is, "Solve my problem. Entertain me."

This is a symptom of a profound spiritual failing of our times: the atrophy of that "moral muscle" that enables a person to be an active and creative agent in his or her own life.

Is there any characteristic of today's "good children," as they enter adulthood, more troubling to their parents than a kind of "drift," an aimlessness that leaves their destiny to whatever happens to show up next on the screen of their lives?

This is why I call that spiritual problem "profound." The capacity that has atrophied in many children is one that is essential for us to live the lives we are meant to live.

It is by facing, on a moment-to-moment basis, the question, "What would be meaningful for me to do right now?" that a person finds the way to the core of his or her being, finds the calling that gives life purpose, and moves with real power in the world. A person who knows only how to follow the tracks laid down by others has not become a whole person.

Our children enjoy an abundance of the amusements that earlier generations could barely imagine enough to wish for. But the fulfillment of such wishes can make the filling of one's time just too easy. And not all that is good and necessary for us is easy.

Purpose vs. entertainment

History shows that it is when a temptation is new to a society that it causes the most trouble. Over the generations, a culture evolves mores and practices to help its members to keep their lives - despite the temptation - in some reasonable balance. Eventually, for example, we'll probably find a way to have a society with an abundance of food and little need for strenuous physical labor without high rates of obesity.

But meanwhile, our society seems to be dissolving mores more quickly than it is creating them, and too many of our children are growing up with too much dependence on entertainment and too little exercise of the muscle of internal purpose.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His ideas can be found at:

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