The Creative Potential of “Screen Time”

[Image description: A photo of myself as an eight-year-old getting the GameCube game “Super Monkey Ball” for Christmas. I have medium-length dirty blond hair and some kind of zigzag pink shirt and a shocked expression on my face. Also visible are several inexplicable background items, including a lot of gumballs in a milk carton-esque container, a cup from the restaurant A&W, and a child’s dress-up outfit. I was making this surprised face because this was the first gaming console we ever got in our family and my parents had playfully tricked us about it, pretending to not know the difference between a “Gameboy” (which we already had) and a “Gamecube”, which they had surprised us and gotten. End description.]

I grew up with a lot of technology. We had a home computer since before I was born and we had access to it pretty much whenever, as long as an adult didn’t need it right at that moment.

I used to play simple clicking games when I was very young, like 3 and 4, that would read a book to you and let you click interactively on the illustrations, like Dr Seuss or Just Grandma and Me. When I was slightly older, like 6-8ish, we had tons of CD-ROM games that I would play. I learned to type fluently by the time I was 10 or so (I have a knack for typing). We had a couple of gaming systems, though I was personally never super into console games. We had some handheld gaming systems too. I had a laptop when I was 13.

It’s not exactly comparable to access to tablets and phones that current children have, or even teens/young people who are just slightly younger than me, but I do look back on all the technology access I have and think about how immensely, constantly creative and playful I was with all of it.

An incomplete list of things I used hours and hours of screen time and technology to do throughout my childhood:

  • I used my parents’ digital camera to take pictures of my brothers doing flips on the backyard trampoline and then I used the home computer to Photoshop them doing a flip off of Niagara Falls or flipping through space or other images I found on Google search.
  • We used to use our Nintendo DSes to create flipbook-style animations by going into the empty “chat rooms”, drawing a picture and sending it, then drawing a slightly different picture and sending it again, and so on until you could scroll up through all “sent messages” to watch the changing pictures like an animation.
  • I wrote copiously. Imagine the most writing you can imagine and then imagine more than that. Also imagine that all of it is absolutely terrible fiction/fanfiction written from the perspective of a relatively sheltered preteen, some of which was outright plagiarizing books that I had read and loved—I would just change the names and some details and retell the story but worse. 😆 (But it’s how I learned to write fiction!)
  • I had a blog as a young teen where I just blogged about my life. It was pretty boring. I had another blog where I posted poetry and songs I wrote, which was also pretty terrible. I scrapped the blog and made a Tumblr when I thought I needed to distance myself from my old immature poetry and start writing new and better poetry. It was *also* pretty terrible.
  • We typed random stuff into the computer and then got it to do text-to-speech and read off all the silly things we wrote. Potty words, probably, and then just goofy sentences, and then getting it to do things like “beatbox” by writing words that sounded like beatboxing.
  • I spent so. much. time. playing with PowerPoint. Like a hilarious amount of time playing with PowerPoint. My husband still teases me about it. I made PowerPoints about literally everything I cared about. I learned the intricacies of every single type of background gradient or animation or slide transition you can imagine.
  • If I saw a movie I liked, I would draw scenes from the movie in Microsoft Paint, copy paste those scenes into a PowerPoint, and then record a voiceover explaining and voice acting out the movie, so that we could “re-watch” it. I usually also added in inside jokes between me and my brothers.
  • I typed things into Word and then changed their fonts and then practiced handwriting to match the fonts. When I was in sixth grade I wanted to make my default handwriting look more like a font so I spent some time developing a handwriting style that I wanted. Later, I learned about websites where you can create your own fonts so I did that.
  • I played DX Ball (a block breaker game) and whatever all the old defaults on Windows were — solitaire, hearts, Minesweeper, Mahjong, that one where you’re in a 3D maze. I didn’t even know how to play half these things. I tried to read the rules of Hearts like 95 times as a child and never quite understood them. (I still don’t know how to play!)
  • I played Neopets and Webkinz whenever I possibly could, as well as all kinds of Nintendo DS or computer games where you get to have pets and take care of them, name them, etc. I wrote terrible, terrible fiction and submitted it constantly to the Neopets creative writing newsletter or something. I feel very apologetic to whoever had to read and screen out my constant submissions of terribly dumb stories. As a child I was continually surprised that my stories hadn’t been chosen to be published.
  • We used our parents’ digital camera to record ourselves acting out scenes and then uploaded it to movie-making software and learned about editing the scenes together, often necessitating us to go re-act out the scene to fix something. We made whole videos. I remember one time we made up a skit and it was us 3 siblings and one friend who was acting in it, so it had 3 roles for the skit and we needed a cameraperson of course, and so we re-recorded the same skit like 16 times because we were trying to do all permutations of everyone being in every role in the skit so we could decide which take was best. 😂
  • We learned the intricacies of all the settings in the entire computer, so we could change the mouse cursor to something else and change the color scheme and change the screensaver and change the background and…
  • There was a card-making software called Create-a-Card and I used to design cards full of clipart and 50 kinds of fonts for every special occasion that anyone who we even slightly knew was having (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays…)
  • I made a world on GameCube Animal Crossing and played through basically everything you can do in the entire game, then made a new save and repeated the process four times (which was the maximum amount of times) and made my “house” in the original save into a “hotel” full of food and games and beds that the other saves, as “guests”, could come stay at and then leave me bags of money.

I wrote, I texted, I sent emails, I learned how to animate, how to draw, how to make movies, how to edit movies, how to make music, how to make slideshows, how to type… For me, screen time was an immense well for creativity. And I’m talking about the span of a whole childhood here. There were times where I’m certain it looked like I was just vegging out and doing nothing. There were times when I *was* vegging out and doing nothing. I was lucky enough to be part of the internet when the internet was still fairly new. Social media was not designed to target me and turn me into money, yet. YouTube was not an un-dangerous place but neither was it what it is today.

But when I hear people talk with fear and hyperbole about how terrible “screen time” is (what a vague concept to paint all with one brush!), I sometimes just want to tell them how much it was a venue for me to play, freely, child-led, exploratory, creative play. How powerful of a tool it is to set up and gift our children, yes! We should be able to do so wisely and with so much joy, to welcome them into a world where we have this at our fingertips!