The Withering of The Modern Imagination

When I was growing up, my parents did not allow video games in the home and television was limited to one hour of PBS on weekdays and two hours of cartoons during the weekend. After watching Arthur and Wishbone, I would read books, draft out new inventions, ride my bike and play with friends. I was given the space to run free, make mistakes and experience the world around me. My imagination was completely unbridled and the sky was the limit. 

It breaks my heart to see so many young children handed a tablet at the dinner table, doctor’s office and at home, as if an unspoken assertion that “children should be seen and not heard.” These kids are missing out on the opportunity to engage in adult conversations, observe social etiquette and learn to entertain themselves. Worse yet, the psychological manipulation used to hook adults to digital dopamine hits is being aimed an children whose brains have not fully developed. We live in a world where two-year-olds are addicted to YouTube and ten-year-olds are obsessed with Instagram. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned and this is simply the trajectory of humanity, but I can’t help question the long-term implications of this trend.

I recently came across an article about the American government’s Life Log project, which was deemed unconstitutional and shut down the very same day that Facebook was launched. Interesting. What if, instead of secretly collecting data points, a system was created in which citizens would be encouraged to freely share the most intimate details of their lives? While I find conspiracy theories fascinating, I remain highly skeptical. Whatever the truth may be regarding this particular story, I think you’d be hard-pressed to convince most that the modern mind is not being hindered by the endless stream of distractions, fed into by the raging river of new technologies. And it would be even more challenging to argue that the effects of this cognitive black hole are not intentional.

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Our imagination is a muscle; no time exercising it is ever wasted. And yet, the overabundance of worldly distractions is making it harder than ever to stretch our thinking, to tug at our putty-like minds until they begin to take on a new shape. What could be gained by a bike ride around the park, sketching out your idea for an electric shaver with a vacuum built-in or letting your mind wander during your morning commute? I imagine the benefits would extend far beyond burned calories or fleshed-out ideas. By seeking out novelty–both in the world outside and that within our head–we invite news ways of thinking. By releasing our self-imposed pressure to do more, be more and achieve more, we open ourselves up to the opportunities beyond our current perception; we open ourselves up to “more” and to “better.”

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I am deeply concerned for today’s children. Media-obsessed teenagers generally present as grossly narcissistic or painfully insecure, both traits exaggerated by an judgement online audience. Every elementary school child I know demands instant gratification and dreams of becoming a YouTube sensation. Many toddlers don’t have the patience to sit through the reading of a short book, but instead run off to grab the moving pictures on their iPad.

The technological world is evolving at ungodly speeds, and there are no gates along the way to consider, “What will be the impact this?” Along with the many benefits of technological advancements, perhaps there needs to be a system in place to analyze, predict and project the long-term implications of today’s conveniences, particular when it comes to children. Many psychologists and medical researchers have chimed in with their thoughts, but is anyone really listening? Are parents even willing to put down their own devices and set a positive example for the expansive imagine placed under their care?

Since large regulatory entities don’t seem to be laying ground rules or reigning in the profit-seeking tech industry, perhaps it’s our duty to start taking action, whether in our own homes, schools or community.  I believe kids deserve freedom from distraction. Let them read to their dolls, build castles in the sandbox and draw pictures of make-believe animals. Children should be entitle to the experience of boredom. What can I make happen when nothing is happening? That is precisely where the magic happens.

In the last decade, I have met one child whose imagination has remained unscathed. The six-year-old boy has extremely limited access to technology, is home-schooled by his mother and has a completely different demeanor than most modern youth. He spends hours in deep focus reading, excitedly recites fun facts about the human eye and medieval knights, politely asks for five more minutes at the park and shows off his latest picture–a dog masquerading as a dragon. The little guy gives me hope for this future.

Yet, I highly suspect that the primary reason he’s so well-rounded and full of ideas is that this parents intentionally shield from the bulk of modern technological convinces. This six-year-old is experiencing a childhood very much like my own, simple twenty-five years later. And it makes me wonder, is it wiser to offer children a “normal” experience in relation to their peers or–since we can’t yet comprehend the impact of early tech exposure–is it better to kids them from the possible adverse effects?

While I don’t know the correct answer–ethically, socially or developmentally–I personally don’t think I could bring myself to have children until my partner and I are in a position where one of us is able to stay home and dedicate our full attention to shaping our little person into a kind and creative human being. I have such fond memories of being read to, visiting the zoo in my little red wagon, coloring for hours, playing with my cousins and developing elaborate backyard adventures with my brother. I think that ever child deserves that opportunity to explore the world, to develop their own bizarre ideas and to create things without any rules or agenda. Imagination is one of the traits that makes us uniquely human. Without imagination, what are we left with?

15 thoughts on “The Withering of The Modern Imagination

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  1. I am a teacher, and I agree wholeheartedly with you. Awareness is key. Your post illustrates the dichotomy between the technological onslaught that is hypnotizing humanity and the creative imaginative energy that heals the world. I know which path I choose to take. Thank you for sharing this perspective. 🙏

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    1. Thank you for sharing your insights as a teacher, and thank you for the important work that you do. 🙏 While my interaction with children is admittedly limited, I think “hypnotizing” is such a apt word and I agree that technology may be stealing creative energy from more noble tasks, such healing the world. While technology certainly has it’s place, I hope that awareness grows and behaviors begin to shift.

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  2. Agreed with your article. But believe it will be only worse, 5 G is on the way lol
    I think parents who prefer that their child is sitting with tablet at the age of 2-5 ….simply choosing “easier way” or probably also obsessed with insta like 10yo 🤨

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    1. Absolutely, the kids with iPads are just mirroring the habits of their parents, and being enabled to do so. I’m all for technology, but I sure would not trust a huge corporation (i.e. Apple, Google, etc.) to raise my child for me…
      As for 5G, god save us all! 😧

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    1. Touche. I probably shouldn’t express strong opinions on topics where I don’t fully understand both sides. Toss a child under my care for a few years and I’m sure my tune would change a bit. Haha! Everything in moderation, right?

      However, I will say that it breaks my heart to see parent-child time *replaced* by technology… instead of spending 30 minutes on a bedtime story, a game of Go Fish or simply talking about each other’s day, “mommy needs to work” or “daddy just wants to relax” so go watch something. That behavior, I feel, is very unfair to a child; several people close to me are still recovering from their parents not making time for them decades later, and this is prior the the onslaught of technology. I think there needs to be a healthy balance of staying relevant with technology and embracing the one-on-one connection that humans innately crave. Alright, climbing down off my soapbox now. 🙂

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      1. Well, you said it – balance is the keyword. But your post came off as, well, a wee bit romantic as seen from this parent’s POV. I guess we can heartily agree that more quality time and less screen time should be the ideal and I will sign that vision paper any time. Ideals, however, esp. with kids seldom survives prolonged confrontation with reality. Some days you have to say “fine – take it” – “it” being candy, a tablet, whatever it takes to pacify a kid (esp. if they are ill or just uneasy) and then make up later on and you are going on the third night with too little sleep. Or the ends can justify the means – in the case of long drives, for example, which are not exactly kid-friendly activities. Give the kid something to watch (but make sure they are facing the right direction vs. driving so they don’t get sick and throw up). Then when you reach the beach, it’s all about nature and getting your hands dirty – together.

        You probably agree on this since you mention some of the really bad examples as motivators for your post – parents who seem to use a screen as an extended parenting app all the time. Or toys. Or money. Or whatever replaces quality attention *in general*.

        Like I said, I will sign that vision paper anytime. But when you become a parent you quickly discover that the vision paper is actually a contract with a lot of fine print! 🙂

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    1. Yes, I completely agree that moderation is key. I think technology has it’s place, but I also worry that it’s stealing time and energy away from familial interaction and creative endeavors. My childhood boredom resulted in so many wonderful ideas…I think everyone deserves the opportunity to experience a few moments of, “What can I do?” now and then.

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  3. I have similar observations. Not regarding creativity, or manners, but regarding the way we deal with emotions and problems. I know people who’ve bee shielded from technology until late teens, and those who’ve had computers and video games since they were little. Way different approaches to dealing with life.

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