For Amusement Only? Growing up with Technology

Over the Christmas holiday, my son and I were talking about video game arcades. I spent so much time in them during junior high. That and at the roller rink, where I first played Pong, Missile Command, and Space Invaders. Good times, mostly with my brother. My son hasn’t been to one and really wants to go.

Last week Laura June at the Verge published a great piece on the rise and fall of the video arcade. It is a long and richly detailed piece that is worth every minute you’ll spend with it. It is full of excellent social history, but these bits really struck me:

Like shopping malls and roller skating rinks, they were safe, isolated areas where kids and teenagers could hang out, and, with a reasonable amount of money, spend hours without their parents. Bill Disney, a pinball enthusiast and owner of The Pinball Gallery in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, says of his younger years that “most parents, they basically didn’t know what their kids were doing any time of the day. They were on their bikes, out the whole day,” and “they didn’t care where they were.” This laid-back attitude varied by family, as well as by geography, but the relative autonomy of older children in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and early 1980s, was much greater than it would be moving into the ‘90s. Films of the early ‘80s such as E.T. and The Wizard show typical, American kids, left to their own devices, playing video games and capturing aliens with their friends while their parents are at work…

It’s shocking, of course, to realize that the “golden age” of video game arcades lasted just a few, short years, but if we tie it onto the turbulent history of pinball, we’re looking at a much longer, institutional part of our culture which, in the 1980s, began to pass away. Like roller skating rinks and other public spaces “for young people only,” our culture seems to have decided that kids are better off when they’re not alone with other kids, and worried parents have been victorious in their mission to rid us of these troublesome spaces for loitering, described by New York City in 1942 as a “menace to the health, safety, and general welfare of the people.”

And I thought that my wife and I were just overly romanticizing our childhoods when we waxed poetic about how different things are today! It is amazing how much freedom we had. My brother and I used to ride our bikes 3 miles to The Plaza in Kansas City to watch movies and play video games all the time. While absolutely fun, I do think I actually learned some important things from the experiences. I learned to save some money (“don’t use your last two quarters until you know mom is on the way to pick you up”), do basic maintenance and repair (“how does that bike chain go back on?”), and that you won’t die immediately from most play-related injuries (“how bad was that gash on my brother’s hand?”). My parents took risks letting us roam, but we were all rewarded for it.

Few parents these days, though, are happy to risk not knowing where their children are. I confess to being among them. I ended up living in Chicago for 14 years after college where I did crazy things like get mugged and almost get hit by stray bullets. Makes you worry a bit more, even when you know those are exceptions rather than the rule. I get fidgety letting my son go to 7-11 with his friend, even though it is only 3 blocks away and his friend is related to the owners! We live in a different world, after all.

But maybe it isn’t all that different. After the Newtown shooting, people are starting to talk about the bad effects of video games again. Hopefully, this time around there will be some good studies done on gaming so that our conversation can be based on facts rather than fear. I’m guessing, though, that the risks of gaming will be overplayed once again. Like my fear of 7-11 trips.

‘Cause I’m all in favor of protecting kids from real dangers. It is easy to fear the unknown, and technology gives us unknown in spades. But unreal dangers? You’d think that with all this connectivity, we could give our kids more freedom to risk, not less. Freedom to learn on their own, in their own way.

Leave a comment


  1. It is a digital world and our kids are learning to navigate it on their own like we did in a different time. The stuff is so new and moving so fast that it is almost impossible for us parents to keep up. How do you un-connect them once they have the whole world on the screen?

    • Great question. Not totally sure. I wonder if it is enough just to help them learn the awesomeness of stuff offline. Maybe online is just more compelling now because it is still so new. Or maybe it really is just more compelling. What do you think?

      • I compare it to biting that apple from the tree of knowledge…you can’t un-taste it. I think the only way to help is to teach our kids (and let them teach us!) how to navigate around all the rocks and storms in this new digital ocean. Kids are going to sail all over the place and explore just like we got on are bikes and explored our world in another time. It is mind-numbing to think of all the connection points all over the world.

  2. even in a digital world our kids thoughts are so high. Its getting really difficult for the parents to control them.. by the way a really amusing post enjoyed reading

  3. You’d think parents would let kids roam a bit, what with tracking capabilities on their little ones devices. It’s a wonderland for helicopter parenting!

    • Yikes! As a college professor, I definitely see the down side of that helicopter parent thing. I’ve received calls from parents of that were angry that I had an attendance policy! You’d be shocked at how some parents still want to manage the lives of their 20 year olds. Or maybe not. ;-)

  4. natalietrust

     /  January 25, 2013

    I think our “instant access” world plays a huge role in our personal fears. Someone doesn’t reply within minutes to a text, something must be wrong. Google illness symptoms, must be a fatal disease. Arrived late at a party? Everyone thought you had been in a car accident.

    We are more scared because we have more access.

    Thought provoking post. Thank you!

    • Great point. Patience was probably the “virtue” that I had the hardest time with. Gadgets haven’t made it any any easier.

  5. We first got cell phones in junior high and after that you got in trouble every time you didn’t have it with you. I definitely agree that I grew up in a different world where wandering on my own didn’t really happen until about grade nine. Parental supervision was always needed, and then after that I had to be reachable and they had to know where I was.

  6. Things are changing so fast it is amazying. I remember when computers first came out and people were getting “personal” computers. “Personal” as in having your own “Personal” Jet or something. Back then things changed so slowly I would get phone calls from friends like some sort of magic happened telling me of the latest thing that happened as if it were magic. I remember the first screen saver, I got like a dozen phone calls explaing how it worked. “It just pops on automatically, you dont have to do anything”! DOZENS of phone calls about such a new and wizard like piece of magic. Now when something happens it is no big deal. Kids are kind of dissapointed if a new phone cant actually produce hot food like a replicater on Star Trek.

  7. It is not so different when you think that we still have to wait for the phone to ring. The thing that has changed the size of the phone is now the technology that has created the vacuum. Yet I guess, there are things best left unseen.

    • Good point. But with Ray Kurzweil joining Google, they are throwing lots of resources at the “having to wait for the phone to ring” problem. The holy grail for them is knowing what you want to search/buy before you do. Wonder if that will change things?

  8. I love this post and completely identify with it! As a parent of a 4 year old and a 2 year old – it seems almost unimaginable to let them roam free like I did as a kid. I came home when it was dinner time in the summer but was gone all day long. I want to let them have the kind of childhood I did….but it is hard. Great post!!

    • Soooo hard. I wonder, is it really a problem with the world, or more just a problem with me?

      • I wonder if it isn’t both. (Not you specifically, but all of us :) Like others have said – we have so much access to the 24 hour news cycle, so horrifying news like a child abduction we hear over and over and over. After a while, it’s no wonder we don’t want to let our children out of our sight! But I also think it depends on the kind of community/city/town one lives in. My husband grew up in a midwestern town with a population of 300. They never locked doors and knew everyone in the county. I grew up in a town of 30,000, so needless to say – it was a bit different. No answers here…but it does make me think! :) Again – thank you for this post!

  9. ohtallulah

     /  January 27, 2013

    Has trust died?
    I worry about this…I’m currently in college and don’t have any children but i often wonder if I will be able to allow my children the same freedom I had. Have the times changed so much? Part of me says yes, the other part hopes for no.
    I remember summers, while my parents were at work, where my friends and i roamed our area freely until dark and these are some of my fondest memories…could i deny my children that same adventure?
    At the same point, as several have mentioned, i didn’t have a cellphone with instant access. I guess we needed more trust back then. So i repeat, is trust dead or merely on a short time limit?
    Great post!

    • That’s a great question. I find trust challenging these days because we are inundated with stories of horrible things that happen from all around the world. So much reinforcement not to trust. And that’s coming from someone who grew up in a trusting era (pre-internet, pre-identity theft, pre-aids) who has a personality that leans strongly toward loyalty and giving the people the benefit of the doubt. It must be even harder if you don’t have that foundation to start with.

      At the same time, people do some kinds of “trusting behaviors” online—like giving out personal information and credit card numbers—all the time. But these aren’t fully trusting relationships because the risk only goes one way.

      I wonder if we are getting used to a kind of trust that really isn’t trust at all.


  10. I remember the good old days of video game arcades all too well. Me and my brothers could spend all day at the arcade at our local fare with just 3 or 4 dollars in quarters in our pockets. Looking back, I can probably write a long winded post about what I learned as a kid having a public space where me and my peers could hang in and interact with safely. Times are changing, and it’s almost impossible to go outside and not see kids glued to their smartphones instead of pumping quarters into the warm glow of the donkey kong game. This past Christmas was spent with my girlfriend’s relatives who have 3 daughters aged 3, 7, and 11 and I could count on one hand how many presents they collectively received that didn’t require batteries or wifi to function. Great post, and congrats from a fellow freshly pressed alum!

    • Thanks for your comment and wishes.

      Yeah, I wonder what will happen as that public space changes from being a wide open place for adventure to basically somewhere people go to rant about which political party is more screwed up. Where do people go to explore and enjoy, succeed and make mistakes?

  11. Reblogged this on Raviera and commented:
    Children will be the amusement park as well as the wells of tribulation for the parents. However the technology is fast catching up and we can hope for a more secure and peaceful future.

  12. Thanks for sharing, great post. Curious though, I wonder how scholars or children who love to read felt when a “library” opened up in their area. Was the library the amusement park or arcade waaaaay back when? Being a game enthusiast and having a 5 year old at home, I feel proud to left my son share in the enjoyment that I once had playing games as a child.
    Besides if video games were never invented, it would what….TV?
    I remember the same argument that violence in cartoons were making kids misbehave.
    There will always be something…kids will be kids.
    just my thoughts

  13. congratulations on featured in Freshly pressed.

  14. Charlie Sanchez

     /  February 5, 2013

    Great blog! I think we’ve got an interesting few years ahead of us as kids are growing up with tech skills but little to no social skills.

  15. I fully agree with your post but I truly wonder how soon it’ll do a 180 spin and change completely. I was born in 1990 and as such I was allowed no freedom at all. I wasn’t even allowed alone outside till I was like 13. My dad even walked me to school that’s how scared my parents were. It makes me think though that if I will have kids I would never do it the same way. You know people always say that either you become exactly like your parents or the exact opposite of it? We played indoors, we used video games excessively and I think the ones that will come will sort of go back to the great outdoors. I have to agree it will never be the same again – they will always be reachable through cell phones, there will be more surveillance and probably their games will be different. Right now I dare say we are not too far from augmented reality games that use cell phone cameras to upgrade real image. They already exist so maybe my kids will do scavenge hunting with their iPhones in hand :D

  16. congratulations on featured in Freshly pressed.

  1. For Amusement Only? Growing up with Technology | leapbit

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