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‘The New Childhood’ and How Games, Social Media Are Good for Kids

Jordan Shapiro’s new book “The New Childhood,” was released on Dec. 31. Shapiro, an influential columnist, thinker, and teacher, dedicated many years to exploring and writing about education in the digital age and how it impacts children and families.

I know Shapiro’s work through my time at Games for Change, where he proved an active and positive voice in the discourse about video games for learning and social impact. I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy of the book and found it to be a thought-provoking, bold read. As a father of two daughters at similar ages to Jordan’s children (7 and 9), facing similar challenges and dilemmas, the book provided me with an inspiring and optimistic perspective that’s rare in the current media landscape.

I reached out to Shapiro in the hope of expanding on the ideas in the book.

I’m constantly surrounded by friends and fellow parents who are threatened and frustrated by video games and new technology, and reading this book made me feel like I’m doing something right as a parent with a much more open policy and dialogue. At the same time, your book is also demanding — it puts a lot of responsibility on parents.

“Demanding” is such an interesting word choice. I say that because I think everyone knows that parenting, in general, is a very demanding endeavor. I’m so exhausted all the time, and I’m guessing you are, too. But I’m not complaining. I knew what I was in for what I signed up for this—didn’t you?

Does anybody actually expect that raising kids will be easy? I doubt it. And still, for some reason, grown-ups seem especially distraught when it comes to dealing with kids and video games. They’re downright angry about how much effort it takes to make sure that children develop a healthy relationship to digital devices. Even in your question, there’s the implicit assumption that parents shouldn’t have to take so much responsibility for it. And we all do that — we get mad at the devices rather than teaching our kids how to live with them. Where does that way of thinking come from? Is it related to our expectation that technology should just work right all the time, the same reason we get so frustrated when software is buggy (even though it almost always is)? Maybe.

But the point is: Nothing is ever going to make parenting less demanding. And that’s why I wrote this book. I wanted to help people see that the real task of childrearing has always been to teach kids how to live well in a changing world. We take what we know — those values that we learned from our parents, and that they learned from theirs — and we teach our children how to be fulfilled and kind and thoughtful in new technological, economic, and cultural contexts. Video games are just a part of living in a new, connected world.

Some of the thoughts and concepts you present feel almost like a framework that is meant to “wake up” decision-makers and thought leaders — educators, government, nonprofits, and other people with influence.

What I find interesting is that on the one hand, everyone — parents, educators, policy makers, etc.—seem worried about how to prepare kids for the so-called fourth-industrial revolution. They’re asking: How do we make sure that people can still live a meaningful, productive life after A.I., automation, the internet of things, and bioengineering completely transform our society, our economy, our culture? And then, on the other hand, folks are also panicked about the way kids are playing video games or using social media all the time.

Well, it seems to me that there’s a fundamental paradox here. See, digital play is the best possible way to prepare kids for what’s coming. How do I know that? Because play has always been the best way to prepare kids for the future. The research is clear about this; the science is conclusive. Through play, kids learn key social and emotional skills. It’s how they cultivate self-regulation and executive function skills. And so much more.

But a lot of people seem to make the mistake of thinking that play is a neutral thing, that there is such a thing as “pure” play. That’s not true. You can’t separate play from the context, or the zeitgeist of a particular era. That’s one of the ideas I explain in the book: so many of the things we think of as the sacred components of the childhood experience—the sandbox, the family dinner, the Teddy bear—were actually developed during the industrial era. Why? To prepare kids with the skills for the economic and technological realities of the 20th century.

So, it’s not just that kids need to play. It’s also that they need to play with toys and games that fit the contexts in which they live. Today’s kids live in a connected world. So, they need connected play. They need to participate in activities that prepare them to navigate a networked world with ease. And video games are already doing just that. If parents, teachers, and caretakers get involved—if they start playing video games with their kids—well, then, I’m certain that everything will be alright.

You discuss a variety of common misconceptions and myths about video games, social media and other new tools. Why do you think these gaps of understandings are so pronounced? It almost feels like we are challenging a “gut feeling” of parents and no matter how much evidence and stats you will throw at them, it won’t change their perception of video games as “a waste of time. What do you feel is the key to transform these views in the short or long-term?

I don’t really think that this is an issue that’s unique to video games. If you look back at history, you find all these examples of grownups complaining about the way kids play. Play is frivolous. Idleness is sinful. These are the old Puritan values. And at least in the U.S., we’re still reckoning with this outdated way of thinking. You see it especially in schools. Many kids only get about 20 or 30 minutes a day of recess.

Even at the university level, the kinds of scholarship that can’t demonstrate a direct return on investment is often criticized for being inconsequential. And of course, it’s the arts, the humanities, music, poetry, even theoretical physics—the very subjects that involve “playing” with ideas. Imagine the annoying uncle at a holiday dinner asking, “What are you gonna do with degree in philosophy?” The answer, of course, is anything I want. Because all the research shows that most professional skills can be learned very quickly. Whereas the playful critical thinking involved in a liberal arts education is what really leads to success, what really enables people to transfer skills and knowledge from one vocation to another.

See, I think a lot of people misunderstand the old religious attitude about the moral virtue of a strong work ethic. Of course, hard work is good, the passion for productivity is an essential component of human progress, but we don’t need to rely on direct causal metrics to define “work.” To a kid playing a video game, trying to learn the secret moves, struggling to level-up, that’s all work. But grownups don’t see it. And then these ideological prejudices get reinforced from one generation to the next and it becomes an almost unconscious knee-jerk reaction to criticize playful activities.

Plus, we have this strange, contradictory technophobia. It’s like modern humans love to build (and buy) devices that we feel guilty about. We love our phones, but we’re also ashamed of them. That “gut feeling” you’re describing is like some deep Freudian superego stuff. It’s a kind of self-loathing. And we really need to eliminate it. Why? Because I don’t want to pass that onto my kids. Instead, I want them to have a healthy relationship with technology. And the whole binge-and-purge, digital detox way of thinking is not at all healthy.

Anyway, in my experience, when parents recognize how badly we’ve handled our responsibility to demonstrate what it looks like when you integrate technology into your life in a positive way, their attitude shifts considerably.

In the book’s journey, we find the “new playground” and the “new playtime” and even the “new puberty.” Re-defining and challenging the fundamental structure of how we live at home, or how our kids are engaging socially or at school. You are speaking about what’s taking place in terms of a revolution, equal to the introduction of writing or printing.

Well, I doubt there’s a way to know if this is a transitional shift equal in scope to the introduction of writing or printing. It’s possible, but nobody can predict the future. Still, I think that this is a big revolution we’re living through. That’s what’s really at the core of parental anxiety. Grownups can see that things are changing in substantial and confusing ways. And they want to handle it well, but don’t know how.

By the way, I also think this is one of the big factors in the political unrest that’s happening all over the globe. We were wholly unprepared for living in such a connected world. We were still coasting in that “We Are The World” euphoric bliss. Like me, you probably remember watching the Live Aid concert as a kid; it was so magical and heartwarming. But now we’re discovering that just being connected isn’t a guarantee that people will handle it well. And we didn’t teach everyone how to deal with it.

It’s the same as playground etiquette: kids will hit and bite and kick if you don’t teach them not to. That’s why so much of the book is about how parents can (and should) play video games with their kids, or the ways they can get involved their kids’ digital lives. When my kids were little, I used to run around on the jungle gym with them—I’d slide and swing and play ball. Now, I do it in the virtual playground.

Why a book? I am sure that you made a deliberate decision to utilize this medium over YouTube videos or blogs… or games. 

Well, I’m a writer. That’s my skill. For a long time, I wrote blogs and magazine articles about this stuff. But eventually, I felt like I needed to do it in a long form. I really wanted to lay out the argument in a comprehensive way. And a book seemed like the best way to do it. Still, I’d love to see a video game about “The New Childhood.” Maybe you know someone who wants to make it?

What are you playing these days with your kids? 

I hesitate to answer this question because we just got “Mortal Kombat X” for the Xbox One. It’s the newest one in the franchise, but it came out two or three years ago. The other day, I saw it on the clearance shelf at Target and I remembered how much I loved the original when I played it on the Sega Genesis with my older brothers. So, I brought it home.

Now, just about every night, I make a big bowl of popcorn and we have this family time full of fierce virtual battles. “FINISH HIM!!!!” Of course, “Mortal Kombat” is a two-player game. But there’s three of us. So, whoever’s sitting out takes on the winner next. The game’s short best-of-three format makes it especially well-suited to that kind of turn-taking. 

Here’s the reason I hesitated, Asi. You probably remember that the original Mortal Kombat led to one of biggest moral panics in video game history. That’s because it’s really bloody and violent. But if you play it, you see that it’s all presented in a cartoonish sort of way. It’s like “Itchy & Scratchy” from “The Simpsons. In fact, my boys and I constantly laugh at how ridiculous it is that someone can stab your avatar in the eye with a magical dagger, blood squirts out all over the place like a fountain, and then you just get right back up and fight some more.

A lot of people will find that disturbing. But notice what I just said: “We constantly laugh.” To me, that’s the most important part of family time. We’re playing together and we’re having a great experience. And the critical point I want to make is that these kinds of prosocial serve-and-response interactions between parents and their children do a whole lot more to cultivate well-adjusted, healthy, ethical individuals than a little bit of violent content could ever do to hurt them.

Variety Gaming editor Brian Crecente is a volunteer on the Games for Change advisory board.

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