Raising children at the end of the world
PPeople always think the world is ending and worry about bringing children there. I did, but it’s now a done deal. My son is in the next room watching a dinosaur cartoon with his little sister on YouTube. The app directed them there because they had already watched another cartoon about dinosaurs, which they found because of other dinosaur content, and so on until original sin, the first times I placed them in front of YouTube and recklessly set them up with a dinosaur cartoon because I was too tired to continue reading and playing with them.
The tangible differences between them showing a cartoon in 2022 and me watching one on TV in 1982 are incidental, and the concerns I have about screen time on their cognitive development have been anticipated by my own parents at the time (at the time, “television rots your brain” was the least sophisticated but generally accurate argument). But their animated drug delivery system makes the recording of the company more sinister and dystopian: the data collection, the algorithmic portion of the next entry, the seamless seam between the end credits and the start of the next episode. . It’s an unholy alliance of addictive spectacle, surveillance capitalism and will-sapping technology – even though the 1982 network executives were there for the same reason, selling sugar and toys between segments of “Scooby- Doo”, although with less precisely targeted. but still surprisingly effective ads.
People always think the world is ending and worry about bringing children there. The start of the month-long Sino-Vietnamese War the day before I was born in 1979 convinced my parents that they were presenting me with a planet on the brink of World War III. But dodging a potentially deadly airborne virus with a newborn and toddler really has a way of making you question your historic timing. Since World War II, I’m not sure there’s been a more trying time to take care of children – in America, at least – than in recent years, with the pandemic, the collapse of democracy here and abroad, school shootings and the ever sharper sword of Damocles that is climate change. Often I masochistically read about these topics and imagine what life might be like when my children are my age. Just as often, I skip dark items because it’s too painful.
As parents tend to do, I thought back a lot to my childhood, comparing my children’s experiences to mine. The 1980s were far from heavenly; Reaganism wasn’t too far removed from Trumpism, just with a friendlier smile and more polite rhetoric, and the threat of nuclear annihilation was always at hand. However, in my perhaps too nostalgic memory, those times now seem much more innocent to me, for the world and for childhood. I feel a warm feeling through the photographs and videos of the time, the already antiquated phrases and accents, the dated fashions and hairstyles; Americans seem so naive in hindsight, blissfully unaware of what lies ahead. Even their low-resolution grain suggests to me milder, less troubled weather.
My belief that analog life was generally best fueled in Future Tense, a column I wrote over four years for the New York Timesand this is at the heart of the complaints of the grumpy protagonist of my new novel, The Great Man Theory. (He writes a non-fiction book titled The Luddite Manifesto.) In my articles I have often shed light on the experience of children in the digital age, from the effects of too many photos and videos taken of them to their parents not having enough physical media at the home to their loss of online privacy. While there are certainly advantages to modern devices when it comes to raising children – I have been grateful more than once to be able to entertain my loved ones with movies on long car journeys – if I had to raise them in a technological age, it would be it’s not that of today. I can’t wait for them to discover the superficial, competitive and cruel arena of social networks. I wish they only had a handful of unattractive channels to browse (and soon get bored) on a small TV that required them to get up to adjust a dial, not all the shows and all the films never before made at your fingertips. I hope they continue to explore the outdoors instead of retreating to a dark room to bend over a laptop. I would rather they developed the attention span needed to listen to an entire album instead of skipping commercially interrupted singles. I wish they had the experience of talking to a friend on the phone into the wee hours instead of texting. And above all, I’d rather they stay up half the night reading a book, as I did so often in my youth, instead of what I know will happen one day, because I do. now myself: browsing the internet on their phones, trying to distract themselves from their thoughts, seeking satisfaction that will never come.
I fear that part of life’s mystery, its gritty magic, is gone forever.
Before going to bed tonight, I am going to read some books to my son. I put it in The Church Mice, a British series that I loved when I was young and whose illustrations of deliciously seedy England in the 1970s I appreciate even more. He goes to sleep and wakes up in the morning to go to school. His teacher scans the children’s foreheads with a thermometer before letting them in. I bought him a T-Rex print mask, which he happily wears, realizing it has something to do with preventing a virus but not understanding the full implications. He and his classmates don’t seem to care as much as I do; that’s all they know, and the kids are resilient. Last year, a girl at her school, when asked what she wanted for Christmas, heartbreakingly asked for a new mask. They’re just happy to be here, and in forty years they’ll look back on that time with the same rosy looking back I do for my own youth. People always think the world is ending and worry about bringing kids there, but they still keep having kids.
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