The Case For Screen Time


The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. You are one of the 2,491 dads (and curious non-dads) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own:

“Your Uncle Gerry is coming up this weekend.”

The timing was unpredictable. The visit always welcome. Throughout the 1990s, a handful of times a year, my Uncle Gerry would spend his Friday evening in a Transit van driving to Manchester. On his arrival, he'd unzip his weekend bag and unveil something I'd previously seen only in magazines, or in my wildest dreams: a pristine, boxed Super Nintendo, imported from the US, my sad NES instantly transformed into a relic; the imported copy of Street Fighter 2 Turbo that cost him £120—including the necessary adaptor—and was worth every penny; or the weekend spent jumping around Mushroom Kingdom with Super Mario 64, plugged into my tiny CRT TV as it struggled to display the plumber's stretchable moustache and stupendous gymnastic ability in three dimensions.

The anticipation would always be there, waiting to see what surprise would come up the M6 next. The extraordinary visits were those when he’d arrive with his PC. I’m not talking about a small laptop—this was a towering, off-white desktop, with a CRT monitor that must have weighed 20kg on it’s own, packed into the back of the van alongside his tools. No matter how great the latest console game was, they played second fiddle to the graphics of a good PC: I'd spend the weekend flying around in a TIE Fighter in a galaxy far, far away; or exploring the Black Mesa Research Facility, fighting back hordes of aliens with my trusty crowbar. Until Sunday evening came, and he’d head back to London, declining my requests to “please, just leave it here, until next time you come up.”

The same year Wayne Campbell was lusting after a white Fender Stratocaster I was coveting a PC; both of us putting our intention out into the universe: “It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.” I just needed to convince my parents that buying one was a solid idea, because they weren't cheap. "It's not JUST for playing games." I pleaded (it ABSOLUTELY was). "It's for writing documents, you can run a business on it, and who knows what else in could do in the future." It turned out I wasn’t completely full of shit, as I got curious about what else it could do—I would dig around in files and folders, changing things in settings, fixing things I'd broken, closing down Windows to mess around in the MS-DOS command prompt. I convinced them to let me buy a modem and connect it to the phone line, and before long I was joining IRC networks, looking for warez groups that might lead me to RAR files that would hopefully unpack into a cracked copy of a new game. I turned 16 the same year Napster was released, all the songs I could eat at the same time my musical palette was opening up, convincing my parents (there’s a theme here) they needed a dual ISDN line in their office so that they could read emails and browse the internet faster, when in reality it was to cut the download time of a track from 10 minutes to under 5.

It's only with hindsight I can trace the direct line that followed from hobby to career—a young boy tinkering around with that first PC, to the part-time job fixing people's computers for beer money in college, to the Computer Science degree I ended up graduating from, my first job working on a website for a record store, then into the advertising world and eventually ending up at Google, and everything that came after that. Whatever comes will still be that line, continuing into the future.

Building tomorrow, today

Each year The World Economic Forum releases The Future of Jobs, and the 2016 report outlined how fundamental the shifts in work continue to be:

"In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist."

Over the last month Facebook and Microsoft, two of the world's largest companies, outlined their plans to build "the metaverse", a loosely-defined umbrella term for something that, until a few years ago, existed solely in the imagination of science-fiction writers. (Google will give it a go too. It’ll almost certainly be a messaging app.)

Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 book "Snow Crash", painting a dystopian future where people entered the metaverse to escape the horrors of real life. In "Ready Player One", a foundational text for Oculus employees (who now form the backbone of Facebook's metaverse team) reality was similarly seen as something to escape from, and not to live within.

The metaverse isn't a theoretical thing that might one day change the world. People are building, and participating, in it everyday, although they know it by different names: Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite. Clive Thompson recently explained why the metaverse is already here:

"The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course."

The media is quick to leap to the negative aspects of gaming, and how they're defiling the minds of our children (I'm reminded of the great Marcus Brigstocke joke: “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.”) But these games can’t easily be dismissed as a waste of time. They're teaching kids how to build: both the structures inside the games, and the economic worlds that support them. There are over 600 developers who earn over $85,000 a year from their Roblox creations, and the company paid out $129.7 million to developers in the second quarter of 2021 alone. People are building careers by streaming their escapades inside these worlds—latest figures peg DanTDM, a leading YouTuber, on an annual income of $16.5m. These stories are only the tip of an iceberg, and one growing bigger every year.

I dipped my toe into Fortnite a few years back: as an industry observer, as a parent, and as a player myself. And whilst I didn't have the chops to Victory Royale, or the patience to outplay kids with hours to learn the intricacies of every corner of the map, you could see there was something wholly fresh—an always-on, ever-evolving world where people could come together, learn through play, and express themselves through their avatars. Visiting a friend's house a few months later, and watching their 8 year old boy construct a make-shift protective tower while preparing for the end game, was akin the feeling of watching Rubik's Cube world record videos: I understand what’s happening, in theory, but there's no way I can follow what their hands are doing, in reality.

If we spin the screen time debate on its head, and look forward, optimistically, and not backwards based on entrenched beliefs, what skills might these children be learning for tomorrow’s world? Uncovering opportunities to build businesses. Understanding how people collaborate in virtual worlds. Performing under pressure. Better capacity for communication, team work and leadership. The most recent Future of Jobs report said employers will looking for candidates who demonstrate “problem-solving, active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.” All things that can come from playing games. And that's just what know is useful today. Who knows what the world looks like when our children settle into a career path?

Do you think MilesMusicKid's parents were clock-watching for screen time whilst he was in Garageband, a five year old kid remaking Radiohead in his front room? After winning chess tournaments as a kid Demis Hassabis took his winnings and bought a ZX Spectrum, taught himself how to code, and now runs Deepmind, pushing artificial intelligence—and the world—further, one previously unsolvable problem at a time.

My time spent with screens, and growing up curious about technology, gave me an advantage over others trying to get a foot in the door of the advertising industry, just as the world economy was crumbling. An innate understanding of digital that led me to design an old CV like a Google search result page, 3 years before I’d get a job there. An employer who told me how ecstatic they were to have finally found someone who “gets all of this and we can put in front of our most important clients.”

The future will be built by a generation who will use materials, tools and techniques that don't even exist today. Just as one man's trash is another man's treasure, today's waste of time could be tomorrow's competitive edge. Hard to believe? That's exactly what happened with me.

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

After a particularly egregious school report, my Auntie Anne searched for a punishment that would force my young cousin to change his ways. So she went after the thing he cared about the most: his beloved XBox 360. In the era before cloud-based saves, she formatted the hard drive, rendering his hundreds of hours of effort across multiple games to nothing. She didn't realise the severity of her action until she saw his devastated face.

We’re not going to make those mistakes. We're the first generation of parents who grew up playing games ourselves, and now watch our children play them too, with a more nuanced understanding of the concept of screen time. As I spend more time talking to those of you aligned under this banner of modern fatherhood, I see many who trace a similar line between the time spent playing games then and what they get paid to do today. Creativity wasn't just the by-product of time spent drawing, and playing outside—it was fueled every time you flicked that power button on and were transported to a new pixellated world.

Thinking back to my first PC, that hulking beige box—overclocked, overworked and underpowered—weaker than the watch I wear on my wrist today, I had no idea of the potential lying within. Could my Uncle Gerry have known that by lugging his machine up from London once in a while it'd lead to his nephew getting a job in that same city?Could my parents have imagined that buying that dust magnet would, 25 years later, send their first-born son to California, in a modern day gold rush that echoed the 300,000 who followed a similar path almost 200 years ago?

It's impossible to predict the impact a "time-wasting" hobby might have on your child's future.

But it sure is fun to think about, isn't it?

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3 things to read this week

  • "Hold on," I hear some of you thinking, "weren't you just telling us to stop spending time looking at screens a few weeks ago? Well yes. I contain multitudes. But I believe that all screen time is not created equal. I've heard first-hand from executives at big tech companies who won't let their kids near the products they work on, something that was echoed in this New York Times article from 2018: "Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads."

  • For an alternative point of view to this essay, read of Emily Oster's take on screen time. Whilst we're on different sides of the spectrum (I disagree with her lumping gaming into "passive media", for one), her data-based approach is a rational counterpoint to my "what if" scenarios that arrive drenched in emotional childhood vignettes, post-rationalised like Don Draper trying to sell you a projector.

  • Finally, my all-time favourite essay in the Venn sweet spot of fatherhood and gaming is this "experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting" from Andy Baio. Rather than buy his son the newest console he went back through history, starting with Pac-Man and going forward one console at a time, giving his son "a crash course in video game history, compressing 25 years of gaming history into about four years." A wonderful story with a great ending.

Good Dadvice

Previously on The New Fatherhood

On last week's open thread we shared our favourite childhood TV shows. Thanks for all who got involved. And italo disco fans should click the final link to get an idea of how vibey Italian kids' TV was back in the day.

  • He-Man was my first love. I had Castle Grayskull, my best mate had Snake Mountain with the voice chaging microphone thing. Then it was MASK, Transformers, Action Force. A bit of A-Team and Dukes of Hazard ... Knight Rider and Street Hawk and loads more in between. Anthony

  • Oh man… this got me thinking about all kinds of shows and a memory of Saturday night where Dad would take us to the video shop to pick something out to watch. I used to rinse all the VHS 📼 tapes they had for ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ the animated series. Even though I’d seen them all before as I made everyone get up early to watch them on Saturday morning TV. I had all the action figures and the Ghostbusters fire station complete with slime. My Mum only let me use the slime like once… it absolutely stank and got stuck on everything. Goodness knows what was in it. Josh

  • Growing up in Italy in late 70s / early 80s meant you would be exposed to Japanese cartoons from the 60s / early 70s (because they were cheap to license, apparently). They were just dubbing them and adding a theme song, which most of the times was a fantastic italo disco tune, like Supercar Gattiger. Gasta

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