Skip to main content
anthony e. wolf

"Omigod, that's so cool," Jonathan texts to his friend as he watches a YouTube video of a cow that got its head stuck in a car window.

You might ask Jonathan, "What about the here and now?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You have a shoulder. You can move it forward and backward. You can feel the motion. If you look up above you, you will see a ceiling. There are some freshly cut carrots on the counter next to you. You can actually smell the carrots. This is you in the here and now."

"I don't get your point. You're weird."

The Globe's Back to School Guide

Probably the most profound effect of the electronic - and, particularly, mobile - explosion on the lives of teenagers is not about the specific content of what they may be seeing or communicating. It's this simple fact: Rather than existing in the here and now, their world of the present is often experienced through their connection to the electronic world - usually through a tiny screen.

They're two very different modes of experiencing the world. The obvious plusses of the electronic world are that there is so much you can get to see and learn about, so many people with whom you can have contact, and there is such a wide range of possible entertainment.

But the direct experience of the here and now has distinct advantages as well.

Riding a dirt bike down a steep hill. Throwing horns at a rock concert. Playing hockey. Hanging out with friends at a parking lot behind an abandoned school building on a hot summer night. Competing in the how-many-Polish-sausages-can-you-eat-in-two-minutes contest at the Ex. Dancing.

What's unique to the above experiences? What is it that is different from life as viewed through a screen and a speaker? They are more immediate. There is more of you - your body, you, whoever it is that comprises the totality of whoever you are. And the connection is more direct - there is no distance between you and it. It's not over a screen, but you are in it. And as there is more of you, so too there is more of you on the line - for better or for worse.

If a teen were to think back over the last year, what would they remember? What experiences would they most want to take forward as having been part of their life? Wild times texting, or a really hilarious posting on Facebook - or a direct here-and-now real-life experience?

Which is more satisfying: Actually climbing a mountain or getting to the top of a mountain in a video game where you had to overcome numerous electronic obstacles? Almost certainly climbing the real mountain takes longer, is boring a good part of the time and much of it can be physically unpleasant. Minute for minute, it's considerably less fun. Yet somehow the overall experience has so much more impact, and fills a bigger space inside of you. Bottom line: The experience is richer, fuller, deeper.

My point is, there is something that can be deeply meaningful about here-and-now experience that you cannot get through the electronic world. I'm not dismissing electronically produced experience. It has become an inexorable part of teens' lives. But real experience in the real world is important too.

What's a parent to do?

Believe that real-world experience is good for your child. And if you believe it, try to limit their time hooked up to electronics.

Push for them to engage in real-world activities - going out for a sport rather than only playing video games. Go to a school dance. Join the drama club. Run for class president.

Preach the advantages of real-world experience:

"Jonathan, real life and the world over a screen are different. The electronic world is great. But there is another part of life other than what you get from video screens. Real life can be very satisfying, important to you in a way that is completely different from what you get through an electronic device. It can fill a different space inside of you that electronics do not touch."

The reason that this is a good thing to say is that it happens to be true. And kids know it. They see. They know from their own life that real and right now is fuller and deeper than what goes on in the electronic universe. It is just that right now they really would rather not put down their cell phone.

It is always good to remind them that there is more to life beyond the tiny screen. In their heart they know it's true.