Childhood games: What would Margaret Mead say about screen time?

Last month, a New York Post article about video games being like “digital heroin” for kids caused a bit of an uproar. The article describes a young boy losing interest in reading and baseball in favor of Minecraft, increasingly throwing tantrums until late one night his mother finds him in a catatonic state. Many have refuted this article as based on suspect evidence and even as a plug for the author’s addiction recovery center, noting the human tendency to treat new technologies—especially those used by children—with hysteria. It’s just the latest in the “screen time” debates.

But beyond scaremongering, what does screen time and immersion in digital worlds actually mean in terms of child rearing? I ask this question not just because it is anthropologically interesting, but as the parent of two small children who are growing up in a digitally transforming world. In keeping with my last two posts in this series, I turn to the work of Margaret Mead for ways to think about technology and child rearing. Perhaps Mead’s most interesting insights are about the decline of respect for elders’ knowledge—and thus, a loss of knowledge about traditions and life wisdom—in situations of rapid cultural and generational change. She felt that American children had markedly different lives from their (often immigrant) parents, with access to more resources and technologies, and the potential for upward mobility. This, she argued, meant that:

“In a country where the most favoured are the ones to take up the newest invention, and old things are in such disrepute…the world belongs to the new generation…. In the past there have been societies in which the elders have been craftsmen in life, wise in its requirements, loving in their use of precious materials…. But in…America, life is not viewed as an art which is learned, but in terms of things which can be acquired” (Mead 1930: 214-16).

Here, Mead argues that in societies that value facility with new technology over life experience, children lack humility or appreciation for skills learned over a lifetime. This is a comment less on how virtual game play affects children, and more on how the privileged place of these digital creations in our society affects kinship structures.

However, I do not think that Mead would consider television or video games inherently bad for children. Mead studied childhood in many places—perhaps most famously among different groups in the South Pacific—and compared their practices to American child rearing. Later, she was considered one of the first “experts” on parenting, along with her friend and family pediatrician Benjamin Spock. As an early contributor to the “nature-nurture” debates, she believed that certain cultures create specific personalities and that this happens early with children. Mead’s work reminds us that parenting is infinitely varied, and thus one should keep an open mind to new variations.

I will come clean now, and admit that I am not a gamer. My parents never allowed video games, although I watched my male friends play some of the games of that era. I didn’t join in much partly because of perceived gender divides, and because I was terrible at these games, having no experience. I was intrigued by the world of the Legend of Zelda, although I always felt I had more in common with Link, the industrious (male) protagonist, than with Princess Zelda who must be rescued. As for Mortal Kombat, I remember asking, “What good is it to know how to knock out a monster with a double kick in this game if you can’t do it in real life?” (My friends would say, “That’s not the point.”) However, thinking about virtual worlds anthropologically—and the variation in these worlds now as compared to when I was a kid—I realize the moral judgment in a wholesale rejection of the play, exploration, and socializing possible in digital spaces.

I think Mead would understand virtual worlds as “real,” and make distinctions about different kinds of virtual experience. For example, in a typical video game, there is some room for flexibility and agency (and increasingly so, from what I understand), but the visuals and rules have been pre-programmed, thus lacking the chaos and surprise of the physical world. A computer program has yet to simulate the world, but there are digital spaces that allow more creativity. Tom Boellstorff argues convincingly that places and social relationships in Second Life are “real” and provide a space for people with certain interests or medical conditions to meet.

Minecraft, which appeals enormously to children, allows players to build structures with other players in a virtual space that does not include an overall goal with challenges to overcome. Some argue that Minecraft encourages children to think like computer programmers and engineers. Minecraft has provided a platform for children with autism to meet and socialize and, as Mimi Ito demonstrates, can be a creative route to education. Gaming communities lead to relationships between people, who may meet face-to-face or not, while Casey O’Donnell shows that game developers have their own cultures. And of course, Pokémon Go is the most audacious attempt yet at creating an “overlay” between real and virtual worlds.

Mead would probably argue that virtual worlds are part of the “real” world for our children in the same way they are real for adults. Let’s be honest: I spend the majority of my weekdays staring at screens. Yet the activities I do on screens vary—I email mainly for work, I use my phone for texting with friends and family or to scan social media, I use the Internet for research, I write on a computer, and increasingly I read articles and books online. At night I might watch a “brain candy” TV show. As I’ve said, I’m not a gamer, so I do not have immersive experience in this kind of virtual world, although I enjoy a good science fiction novel or TV show here and there. I can understand the appeal. However, I limit my two-year-old’s screen time to a weekly Friday family movie night, when we all watch a half hour of a cartoon movie. He asks for movie night during the week now. He also talks to his grandparents using Facetime on my phone, and sometimes I let him look at photos of himself and family on the phone. He already knows how to swipe the screen and sometimes cries when I take the phone away. It’s a slippery slope, but is it a bad one? This will become ever more complicated as my kids get older and want to play virtual games. I do think it is important to spend time in the physical world, in face-to-face social situations. I also realize this is a moral argument in many ways.

I think Mead would say it is important for children to explore their worlds including virtual spaces, but not at the expense of exploration of the rest of their worlds. She would probably be the first to argue that more ethnographic research is needed. What do these games mean for how children learn roles, rules, norms, socializing, and trusting themselves? How does this compare with learning from physical play that teaches them rules of the physical world—such as climbing and falling from a play structure—and face-to-face social interactions? Of course, as noted above, some anthropologists are doing this work already. Certainly, games can help children develop empathy; Mead herself, with Gregory Bateson, invented a card game that sought to teach how democratic leaders and dictators think differently. The nonprofit Games for Change specializes in video games with “social impact.” Further, learning depends on the virtual space. Can we make these spaces even more flexible and inclusive, especially in terms of gender or parameters of the game?

Finally, Mead would likely turn the lens back on American society. What does it say about us that we judge parents based on their screen time policies? This is a moral and gendered stance that judges parents and especially mothers. However, I think there is more to it than mommy shaming. In a world that feels increasingly uncertain, the debates over screen time seem to reflect broader cultural anxieties about preparing children—and adults, by extension—for an unknown and unknowable future. Giving our children varied experience in the world, including but not limited to virtual worlds, may be the best we can do.


Mead, Margaret. 1930. Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education. New York: William Morrow and Company.

6 thoughts on “Childhood games: What would Margaret Mead say about screen time?

  1. Now a day, technology shapes child’s mind. But, technology is supposed to shape according to cultural values and practices. Here the era, where technology is empowered.

  2. Great post! Your point about shaming at the end is really important, and what you say about the relationship between ‘real’ worlds and ‘virtual’ worlds resonates a lot with what’s come up in my research.

    Our project team have been doing research on children’s experience of their environment in the East Anglia region of the UK, and unsurprisingly, this issue comes up a lot, often by way of adult assumptions that children are ‘disinterested’ in their environment and ‘shut up indoors all day’ as a result of computers. It’s not always easy to find evidence in support of these anxieties – in fact, the evidence from Stuart Biddle and other public health researchers goes against any simplistic ‘zero sum game’ of computer use automatically leading to a loss in outdoor play time.

    That’s not to say that concerns about computers don’t figure in children’s lives – two of the girls in one school shared the opinion that in the future a place which they valued deeply as a space of play would be neglected, “because all the technology means that people would be in their houses more” – one of the girls shared the cautionary tale of her brother’s bedroom which has five computers, so “he never leaves the room”. So kids themselves can have critical concerns about the impact of gameplay.

    At the same time, quite often, the children would make connections between their use of computers and their experience of the local environment, for example connecting their interest in “building things” (like dens) in the landscape to building things in Minecraft. One particularly striking use of games consoles was mentioned during a walk with the oldest children at one village school; in a village where, because of poor footpath provision, it is difficult and dangerous for children to move around some parts of the village because of the risk from traffic, and so going around knocking on doors was not easy, we were told that they would use the Xbox to contact friends in the village to ask whether they wanted to meet up at the recreation ground to play the intensely physical game ‘take-down bulldog’.

    On the topic of games with ‘social impact’, my colleague Barbara Bodenhorn has been very interested in the ‘Never Alone’ video game as a way as a means of inter-generational storytelling and learning about the environment in arctic Alaska. My understanding is that she and Olga Ulturgasheva have a paper about children’s enagement with this game in the works.

    As you flag up, uncertainty can play a big part in anxieties about computer game playing. I think one of the things ethnography can do is explore how children’s experiences from playing these games help them in learning how to deal themselves with uncertainty in their worlds.

  3. Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful comments! As you point out, there are a growing number of creative research projects on this topic right now and it’s great to know about more of them. I’m interested especially in your insights into how children combine the physical and virtual worlds, and use games as a jumping off point for building communities and for creating new ways to play. The research on “Never Alone” and intergenerational storytelling also sounds fascinating and so necessary! Virtual spaces are already woven into our lives, so why not figure out how people find meaning in them?

  4. Rachel, Richard, do you have any evidence about the distribution of device use across class lines? I ask because I think about my extremely privileged grandchildren. There mother is a former US Naval officer now a career woman who has been absolutely ferocious about limiting “screen time” to fifteen minutes a day (it may be more now that the grandkids are ten and eight). That said, she and her husband have been able to provide a rich array of other opportunities, archery, aikido and piano lessons, frequent visits to Barnes and Nobles and Kramer’s Books in Washington, D.C., exposure to theater and concerts (the latest Facebook images are from a performance of Figaro at Opera in the Outfield). Not to mention large dogs, a big back yard, a garden, and cooking with mom who is an avid foodie. I find myself wondering to what extent limited screen time plus a wide range of other learning opportunities is becoming a marker of elite (wannabe?) status, now that cheap devices with screens have become ubiquitous and lost their cachet as status symbols.

  5. John, there are many class implications here and thank you for pointing that out. Many parents do not have the option to limit screen time–the television has been an effective “electronic babysitter” for decades, while now smartphones and ipads, or cheaper versions, are somewhat affordable mobile kid entertainers. If you have to bring your child to work or lose your job, what options do you have? If television programs claim educational benefits, they may be more attractive compared to your child having nothing organized to do after school. The moral arguments are, also, class arguments.

  6. “If you have to bring your child to work or lose your job…..”

    This points to another aspect of the new economy that, for me, was captured nicely in Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations. In that book Reich points out that all jobs fall into three broad categories, repetitive physical labor, personal service, and kowledge work (which Reich calls symbolic analysis). As automation and offshoring eliminate repetitive physical labor jobs, more people try to make a living in personal service occupations, which, in a straightforward supply-and-demand way, drives down wages. The exception is knowledge workers, in particular those who contribute ideas and skills required for innovation and complex problem-solving. There are, of course, liminal cases. Are workers in fast food restaurants providing personal service or performing repetitive physical labor? Are sports and entertainment celebrities to be counted as knowledge workers? Putting these questions aside, however, I note that both repetitive physical labor and personal service generally require physical presence. Successful knowledge workers are more likely to be free to telecommute and work from home for at least a few days each week and to flex schedules to deal with school events, doctors visits, and other routine interruptions. It would be interesting to know if these flexibility is correlated with less screen time. Could closer involvement with children’s activities and less use of electronic baby sitters be another emerging mark of elite status?

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