The End of Childhood

Mark Twain Google Doodle Celebrates Tom Sawyer’s Fence

“Why can’t I find a one-piece bathing suit or a pair of shorts without words on the ass for my nine-year-old daughter?” is a common refrain among the cadre of unfortunates parenting whatever the generation after the millennials is.  It seems fair to think, anyway, that our children are being forced to grow up faster than they used to (a statement that can be made more emphatically if we were to limit our speculating to the East Coast of the US).

Plenty of thinkers have visited the concept of Childhood’s End, from Arthur Clarke to Neil Postman.  As the latter’s essay The Disappearance of Childhood[1] influentially fleshes out the concept: childhood in the current sense of the word evolved only following the dissemination of the printed word (spoken fluency being all that was required to function as an adult)—reading required longer training, which required increased schooling, necessitating the state of suspension we came to recognize as childhood.  And even this took time—“As late as 1890, high schools in the US enrolled only 7 percent of the fourteen- through seventeen-year-old population.”  Here we modeled ourselves after England, of course, which already had 450 schools by 1660.  However, television “erases the dividing line between adulthood and childhood in two ways: it requires no instruction to grasp its form, and it does not segregate its audience (all NP).”

And the amount of screen time has increased since Postman’s time, to 6 hours of television a day in DFW’s 1990 essay E Unibus Pluram, to a terrifying current rate of 7.5 hours just for entertainment, excluding the amount of computer time one might have to log for work or school.  “Over a year, that adds up to 114 full days watching a screen for fun.” Which means that, if you spend an average of 7 hours asleep each day, and 8 hours at work, and 1 hour commuting, you’re left with 8 days in the entire year for eating, going to the bathroom, talking to people, playing outside, hobbies, daydreaming, and other ordinary human activity.  Which means that in spite of the seemingly logical impossibility of performing two actions simultaneously, we have become, by necessity, a bunch of distracted multi-taskers.

And the numbers are especially scary for the very young, who average more than two hours of non-scholastic daily screen time compared to 27 minutes of being read to (reading is not even mentioned, though presumably a few children under 8 are still somewhat literate).  Even children under 2 log on average nearly an hour of television and DVDs daily, and almost a third of toddlers have a television in their bedroom, despite the fact that even casual internet research of the sort yours, truly is limited to suggests that 0% is the appropriate amount of screen time for the tenderest among us.[2]

The Simpsons

More recently, and less dramatically, Howard Chudacoff frames the history of play as “a struggle between children and the adults who wish to use and colonize their playtime—sometimes for the protection and edification of children, but more and more for corporate profits.”  This trend despairingly strips childhood of two of its chief virtues: ungoverned time and the joy of discovery.

But terrible as the loss of childhood sounds to a person fortunate enough to have enjoyed a prolonged version himself, worse than the end of childhood as we knew it might be the end of adulthood as we knew it (or hoped it would be).  A society geared toward adults (circa 1750) produced a society geared toward children (circa 1950) produces a society geared toward old children (~2000)?

Fake demotivational poster of a man watching TV with his kids.  Very funny and would make a good demotivational wallpaper

So then, who plays the most video games?  Pew found in 2008 that men between the ages of 18 to 29 who have completed some college or are college grads are most likely to spend their time gaming.  Almost more surprisingly, ~60 percent of adults ages 30 to 49 are gamers.

The worst part about television/the internet/video games/low taste/commercialism/technology/political euphemisms/whatever we’re going to attribute it to, is that having lost childhood and having lost adulthood, we’re all stuck in an awful sort of teen purgatory where we all seem to continue to expect rapid, massive transition to remain a part of all of our lives, forever.  An Orwellian concept, sans all the nationalistic fervor.

And what might the other consequences be of a Teen Purgatory (besides short attention spans)?  Probably a lot of angry shouting and empty bickering in place of reasoned debate.  Maybe the notion that every issue is distillable and consumable in thirty-second sound bites, and that we don’t need to read the actual words of a law or decree or service agreement has become not a wholly unreasonable stance considering the awful extent to which all of the above might be filled with skull-splitting, soul-crushing, meaning-obscuring jargon of the sort that would quail any reasonable mind.

Does a teenaged purgatory not in some ways explain American culture’s general worship of artificial beauty—whether dietary or synthetically or digitally enhanced?  And the misapplication of words like reality (in television) or democracy (as in the erroneous categorization of our system of government, and worse, the spreading of).  And our corruption of intimacy?  Maybe The Who’s term is more fitting.  But while a band can barnstorm its way from one destroyed hotel room to another, we’re stuck in the same digs (planetarily speaking) no matter the 24/7 tantrum rave of short-sighted exploitation we feel like throwing.


[1] The essay, not the book, blogs not being a suitable format for discussions or critiques of book-length works.

[2] There’s plenty to revisit, concerning television/screen time and society, but we’re casting a broader, looser net at the moment.

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