Reflections of a Southern Yankee: Screen Time

I am eight years old and sitting in a comfortable armchair downstairs in the den. It’s around 7:00 in the evening. The fading light through the window signals the end of another day. Next to me, a lamp on a small wooden table casts a warm glow upon the room. I am concentrating intently on  the device in my lap. The fingers of my right hand are working a small white knob while my left hand performs the same movements with another knob. A red plastic frame surrounds a gray area where a picture is appearing before my eyes. Slowly working the knobs, I am drawing a house with a tree next to it with the sun and clouds in the sky. The straight lines are the easiest to make, but the diagonal lines and curvy ones are the most difficult. Sufficiently satisfied with my “work of art,” I pick up the toy and begin shaking it vigorously. The powder inside re-covers the screen thus creating a blank canvas. Time to start working on something else. It would be an understatement to say that I spent hundreds, or even thousands, of hours of my childhood with my Etch A Sketch. It was what I would now consider one of the many “screen times” when I was younger.

A term that has gained much more meaning in the last 20 years is “screen time.” When I hear this term, I relate it to something negative. I can’t say that I’ve been immune to my attention-grabbing phone screen. Lord knows I’ve spent hours on my phone. At the same time, I  don’t have cable, Internet or any streaming services. I literally use my phone for everything – especially considering I travel more than 150 days a year for my job. But, do I think the amount of time people spend glued to their phones, iPads, computers or any other electronic device is healthy? Absolutely not.

One of my biggest pet peeves when my sons were younger was phones at the dinner table or out during a family vacation. I was always (and still am) amazed by families sitting around a pool on their phones. I go to restaurants a lot more than most due to my travels and see people sitting at the same table – on their phones! Our screen time is having huge impacts upon our families, our relationships and our interpersonal skills. For the record, I’m not advocating that we all live like the Amish. I am, however, in somewhat of a state of mourning for the bygone times when our screen times were oh so different.

In elementary school, every so often, all of the grade level was brought into the cafeteria where we sat on the floor. A large screen was pulled down on the stage, and we were treated to a special movie shown on a projector with two large silver reels spinning around behind us. Some days, we went to the computer lab where we played Oregon Trail upon a black screened computer with green graphics and words flashing before our eyes. These were our “screen times.

At home, the TV screen was hardly ever on. There were better things to be doing outside with friends; especially on those warm summer evenings that stayed light out until 9:00 PM. If the TV was on, it was ABC or PBS. We didn’t have any other options. These were our “screen times.”

On a warm summer afternoon while playing with neighborhood friends, the sky slowly darkened as an approaching storm came out of the mountains. We waited as long as we possibly could before the pouring rain chased us back home. Running up the stairs to my bedroom, I grabbed a book, jumped on my bed and relaxed next to the open window listening to and watching the rain falling from the sky through the window screen. Small droplets slowly ran down the outside of the screen as the cool smell of rain seeped into my room. These were our “screen times.”

I’m thankful that I grew up when I did. I can’t imagine growing up as a child with so many different distractions vying for my attention. The memories of my screen times are indeed bittersweet. The countless hours I spent in such simple but meaningful ways are sorely missed, especially seeing what I see today – people in trances in front of a screen. I wish more people would put their devices down and find other ways to spend their time. I wish more people knew the joys of much simpler times – times when our “screen times” had such different meanings than today.

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