The Cost of Free Play
The Suspects and Victims in the Theft of Imagination
“Play is the only authentic means we have to make us feel in harmony with life” - Jude Law, The Young Pope, HBO 2016
As a high school junior, I once told my favorite teacher that I wanted to become a Philosophy major in college. His response: “What are you gonna do, think about making money. A week later I came into his class again and uttered out, “Okay, I thought about it and I wanna be a History teacher.” His response: “Make more money, kid, and do somethin’ else.”
As fate would have it, about ten years later I returned to my high school to do my student-teaching. Besides realizing that I am somehow paying the state of Connecticut to do labor for them, I learned many things on my journey to becoming an educator. First, getting an undergraduate degree in History sounds lame but does wonders for the brain. Second, doubling down and getting a graduate degree in History sounds even lamer, but still worth it. Yes, the rumors are true that upon graduation you receive a bully-induced swirly and an official letter restoring your virginity, but I stand by it. By my third degree - a masters in Education - I started to feel like maybe…just maybe, I was ready to become an independent learner.
I quickly grew into the habit of buying a $5 coffee and heading to my local library. It’s such a shame that those $5 Americanos could have been sacrificed to put a down payment on a house instead, but again, worth it. After all, I would need the energy to perform well on what would become my autodidactic proving ground.
But in a building full of Matthew Stewarts, Simone de Beauvoirs and George Santayanas, I found myself getting dragged back to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. As in South Park. An animated cartoon. On Comedy Central. Yes, any pride I have in being autodidactic (also, allegedly so) usually vanishes when I deploy the latest South Park episode as a talking point to discuss the precarious state of American society. And precarious, it is. Nevertheless, as an educator, I have dedicated my life to overturning every stone, thumbing past every page, and flipping through every episode of Cartman’s adventures to unearth edifying jewels. So when not complaining about knowingly choosing a career that fails to pay me my worth, I am watching Randy attempt to take the world’s biggest poop and thinking aloud, “Ah, yes, Parker and Stone are clearly commenting on the South’s tendency to vote against their own interests.”
But perhaps a final test of sorts was to overcome my self-doubt about South Park being a reliable means of education. Their social commentary is in fact as brilliant as it is edgy, clarifying as it is humorous and deserves no scoffing or eye-rolls from serious academics. So while most of the time their 22-minute, HBO streamed episodes leave me smiling from laughter, one particular show left me worried, albeit ready for an exploration of sorts. A rare reaction to their comedy, I had no choice but to follow up on this newfound curiosity of mine; one which was fully inspired by their Emmy-winning three episode trilogy titled Imaginationland.
The show begins with hardly any context, simply diving headfirst into another absurdity. After catching a glimpse of a Leprechaun romping around in the woods, grade school deviant Eric Cartman assembles his crew of fellow third-graders to ensnare the tiny, green man. Temporarily successful, the Leprechaun manages to magically poof his way out of the trap, but not before warning the boys that terrorists are on their way to murder hundreds of our favorite fictional characters. Not before long, the leader of Imaginationland journeys to the boys’ town of South Park only to enlist a quintet of them in a quest to relay the Leprechaun’s crucial message.
Their endeavor back to this fictional paradise consists of a montage where the Imaginationland leader sings a one-word tune - that one word being “imagination,” naturally - while the boys grow impatient and tired. Alas, Imaginationland appears and only moments before our travelers can warn Mighty Joe Young, The Smurfs, and a goddamn centaur that Middle Eastern terrorists are plotting an attack, all hell breaks loose. A mustached, brown-skinned man shouts “Allah!” before exploding a bomb strapped to his chest. Charlie Brown loses a leg. Clearly in shock, Ronald McDonald searches amidst the other detached limbs and for his own blown-off arm. Santa burns alive. Rapunzel can do nothing but watch until her tower crumbles from underneath her.
Perhaps I was distracted by the genocidal destruction of my favorite childhood characters, but it was only upon my upteenth rewatch that the lesson of this episode struck me. South Park creators Stone and Parker were communicating the war on Imagination while simultaneously forecasting its death. Considering that what seems like the majority of all “new” movies and binge-series are mere remakes, Stone and Parker may have once more proved prescient. But after my latest viewing of this episode, I found my laughter replaced with a disgruntled harumphhh of concern. Why was I having such a hard time shaking away something that was traditionally a joyful distraction?
Nowadays, you have to be a little crazy to be a teacher. Anyone voluntarily choosing to be sworn at for interrupting a TikTok film sesh might have a screw loose and that's before taking into account the incommensurate salary for number of degrees, the “are we sure Sally Hemmings didn’t consent” emails from parents, and those semi-annual yet fully serious lockdown drills. In spite of this, I have never once thought of work as work. Take my word for it, there is no feeling quite like hearing “Mister, I got my lexile scores back…thank you so much!” Recently, however, I have noticed a disconcerting trend in public education.
My daily warm-ups often include some hypothetical question that tasks students with imagining something. Perhaps they are to put themselves in the shoes of Michelangelo, facing a punishment of death if caught, sneaking into the Vatican to carve his signature on La Pieta. Or maybe they are Kanye West tweeting about being locked in a “mental prison.” Regardless of the scenario, students must rely on both their critical thinking and creativity to respond to my daily question.
You would not believe just how much of a challenge it is for students to imagine anything at all.
It was during my first year of teaching - an awakening as rude as any other - where I first picked up on this trend. After some self reflection, I decided it was likely my fault they were struggling to answer hypothetical, no-wrong-answer questions. With IEPs, TEAM Certification standards and enough pedagogical acronyms to make one consider dismembering the alphabet, I assumed I was too overwhelmed to properly explain my thought provoking warm-ups to them. But armed with a year of teaching and a handful of strong observation reviews, I ushered in year two of teaching with significant confidence. So when I noticed that this new crop of learners were also failing to access their imagination, I asked my colleagues for their professional opinions.
Veteran teachers, those with 15+ years of experience, agreed with me unquestionably. They too were alarmed by the way Gen Zer’s failed to display hardly any creative thinking. When done listening to my rant on how On-Demand Culture has birthed Gen Z's sense of entitlement, some teachers suggested apathy to be the thief of imagination. Could it be that teenagers simply don’t care enough to write 2-3 sentences predicting how John Calvin would react to the behavior he might witness in our hallways? That just doesn’t pass the smell test, and my smell test is humming at greyhoundian levels after being subjected to a combination of adolescent odors and 4th floor heat.
Which brings me to my working theory: The advent of handheld technology has almost evaporated the amount of mental time children have for unencumbered daydreaming. This is where the skills of imagination and creativity are cultivated; during stares out of passenger seat windows on long car rides or on grandma’s couch while the adults talk over nighttime decaf. Empty mental space is a prerequisite if one wants to sharpen their imagination, and today’s children simply do not give themselves that space or time, as it is replaced by YouTube channels and a myriad of streaming apps. Perpetually occupied, their minds are practicing the art of dreaming perhaps less than any other previous generation.
This will have an impact on our collective future, potentially resulting in a failure to reconceptualize and therefore improve several dilapidating areas in our world. Will America’s rightward drift towards autocracy steamroll past uninventive legislators who cannot envision better ways to govern? Facing social unrest amidst a culture war, will future Americans lose their shield of empathy due to an inability to perceive life as somebody else? Is imagination the driving force bending our moral arc towards justice and if so, will this arc defy physics and reverse course?
In summary, there are three propositions I will posit throughout this essay. Humor me with both the grace to entertain them seriously and integrity to critique them in earnest. They are as follows:
#1. Creativity and imagination are only partly a natural ability, they are skills that can be sharpened.
Upon birth, some bored children can take a handful of trinkets from Pop-Pop’s cough drop drawer and suddenly turn them into a fantastical dreamscape. I’ve never met the man, but I’d imagine Jim Carey to be like this. Possessing an innate ability for creative or divergent thinking must be a natural gift for a lucky few. Yet, the art of imagination can be practiced. It is why we have improv classes, millennia of ancient texts focusing on meditation, and an array of mind-altering, shamanic substances. Imagination may come easier for some, but it is ultimately an improvable skill.
#2. Giving your mind free time to daydream is integral to developing imagination.
This is the part of the essay where my octogenarian alter ego shouts “get off your phone, kid!” It is also the part where I reference a recent study delineating the amount of time Gen Zers spend on their phone. The proverbial alarm will be set off in this section; one which will trigger shocking statistical tripwires. Daydreaming - the time when your mind is unoccupied by the forces of screens - must be critical for practicing creativity. How can one envision everything from monsters to first dates if their mind is dutifully engaging in Netflix’s latest gorefest?
#3. Gen Z’s weaker imagination will have a marked impact on our future.
I am unsure if the public at large - myself included, of course - has grasped the seismic way life has shifted. Injecting handheld technology into our lives is the equivalent of handing a prehistoric human a rifle. By referencing how On-Demand culture instills entitlement, I have already tipped my hand at one way technology has changed American youth. Still, there must be more. There will be more. Larger, deeper influences, too; ones that might permanently alter the way in which our social, economic, cultural and political lives are conducted.
In a most fortunate way, my childhood partly resembled my father’s, which for all intents and purposes is comparable to my favorite movie, The Sandlot. Desktop computers were a year or two away from becoming commonplace in my neighborhood, which meant that if I wanted to see if Brendan was home I had to knock on his door and ask. From then on, we simply played. We created a ball game called, wait for it… The Ball Game, where each team rearranged basement furniture to serve as redoubts during an onslaught. My mom had (foolishly) bought glow-in-the-dark balls that grew more luminescent when holding them up to a light. Naturally, we made teams, chose sides of the room, and chucked the balls at each other with the lights off until someone got hurt.
Then there was the time Matt and I put vanilla syrup in coke to make vanilla coke. Or when we put fishing wire around telephone poles and hung a PB & J on it, just to watch joggers stare in amazement at a floating sandwich. Oh, and when we attached a bottlerocket to said fishing wire and proceeded to set it off with the aim of achieving nothing but pure chaos. After being grounded by our respective parents, we discovered that mixing peanut butter with powdered sugar created an edible, cement-like dough where you could eat what you build. I’ll never know why we had an obsession with peanut butter, but I do know that these shenanigans could only be imagined if we had the free time to do so. So although PlayStation had crept into our lives, our parents knew to severely limit the time we spent using it, and somewhat instinctually so. Without their firm guidance not only would my cabinet of cherished memories be severely understocked, but my ability to imagine would be as dull as it is malnourished.
Despite being coated in the rhetoric of getoffmylawnism, what fueled me to this conclusion wasn’t the egotism that every generation assumes when analyzing its successor. There is concrete data which proves that imagination is a tool that can be sharpened. Moreover, there are academic studies claiming to have pinpointed how to sharpen this tool. Many of them focus on divergent thinking; a form of imagining which, according to the University of Washington, “typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, such that the ideas are generated in a random, unorganized fashion” with a goal to “generate many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time.”
How can the skill of divergent thinking be practiced? The university believes that “brainstorming,” “keeping a journal,” “freewriting” and “mind or subject mapping” to be four helpful techniques which improve creativity. These all require the liberation of mental space that Gen Z is unwilling to permit. The Dominion of the Screen hulks over this generation, essentially prohibiting them from stimulating the natural stimuli for the brain. The growth of inventiveness demands eyes be untrained from YouTube, unconcerned with the pressures of social media apps, and uninhibited from discovering life’s many curiosities.
Sadly, this army of uns is being relegated to the corners of Childhood Past. There are fewer Ball Games, less fishing wire sandwiches, less peanut butter architecture. Imagination dies when boredom transforms from opportunity to inconvenience. But children are not the only ones who find the haze of long car rides and pediatric waiting rooms to be a drag. One would do well to remind oneself that there is nothing so different about our generations that renders us less genetically prone to mass screen-time. If older generations were to be born tomorrow, they would acquiesce to the pressure of technoconformity too. In fact, if I was born tomorrow, I likely would not be able to think up the word technocomformity at all. This doesn’t change the assertion that parents hold just as much, if not more responsibility for screen addictions than their offspring do. It would be beneficial to meditate on how our parents approached handling free time, but in the interest of brevity we can discuss my grandma, Dotsie.
Imagination dies when boredom transforms from opportunity to inconvenience.
Intuition continues to be an understudied part of the human psyche, but it plays a funny role in this story. Everyone can recall their parents or grandparents admonishing them for sitting too close to the television. Considering Dotsie was often tricked into thinking Babushka Day was a federal holiday, I might hesitate to claim her intellect on par with Einstein’s. Nevertheless, my grandma had the intuition to know that too much screen-time would be bad for her grandson, which makes this 2013 headline from ABC even more disconcerting. “Toddlers Obsessed with iPads: Could It Hurt Their Development?”
Even more unsettling is the byline, “A recent study says 70 percent of parents surveyed let kids play with iPads.” But the pièce de résistance for agita goes to the first paragraph, which discusses a little Liana Vilanova, who “can't even sit up yet” but still has a father to cheer on “his 2-month-old's digital prowess, praising her for interacting with an iPad app.”
Now the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief to learn I am still not a parent, just a solipsistic penman telling them what to do. Regardless, even a single, we-don’t-call-it-30-we-call-it-20-overtime-year-old such as myself still has the acuity to throw “do screens impact infants?” into a search engine. The responses - hailing from UNICEF to the APA and other show-offy acronyms - report that screen-time for infants and toddlers can be harmful in a variety of ways. So why are parents hesitant to restrict access to iPads and tablets? Just when you thought that ABC article was dead and buried…
To find subjects for their inquiry, the authors approached “The Klaus family of Whitehouse Station, N.J” and their family of “Devon, 9, Delaney, 7, and Dalton, 4” who are “savvy digital divas, fluent in iPhone and iPad apps.” ABC challenged the family to surrender their devices for 31 days and the Klaus matriarch explained to her children what this would entail. Before the results of this experiment are delineated, the Klaus family offered up their rationale behind allowing such screen-time. Sharla Klaus issued that from a “distraction perspective, if we go out to eat, which we never do, and they are out of control, we can whip [the devices] out and they will be completely distracted until the food arrives.”
Deep breath. We have not even begun to do away with this dystopian article yet. Apparently, we have also not begun an honest introspection about the deeply, Christian-rooted expectation for American newlyweds to embrace a parenthood they might not want. Nonetheless, couples are still having babies and shoving screens in their faces to shut them up. Rest assured, parents of older generations would utilize this strategy if they had the technology. But they didn’t. And because of it, imagination lived on to fight another day. Perhaps soothing your way through your baby’s airplane temper tantrums is the price we must all pay to avoid a dreary, vapid future. And as much as I loathe how one wailing infant can make me pray for dual engine failure, the point stands strong. Imagination, creativity and inventiveness are skills that can be developed. What’s more, its growth will be stunted when shackled by screens unless childhood playtime emancipates itself; a reversion back to hide-n-seek, makebelieve and good, old fashioned, random silliness.
In an essay exulting the sanctity of imagination, it is ironic to mention how our ABC authors could not have thought up this next quote from their article. Upon their first few days without screens, the daughters “were left to play with their analog toys and had to resort to imaginary play. At one point, Devon and a friend played with a pretend iPad.”
Color me jaded, but this might not bode well for the future. Teachers are sincere when they wonder how today’s school-aged kids are going to handle a workplace that demands they stay off of their phones until their first coffee break. While some child psychologists believe it was “healthy socialization” when the Klaus clan “fought a lot more without the devices to occupy them,” it is reasonable to wonder how college degree holding 22-year-olds will fare when asked to drop their iPhone cold turkey.
After learning the amount of time they spend looking at their phone or other screens, “cold” might not even be the most accurate temperature. Funded by a handful of left-leaning philanthropes, including the man who founded Craigslist, a study by Common Sense Media set out to determine just how much time Gen Zers are spending on their screens. The 2019 project, titled The Common Sense Census: Media use by Tweens and Teens, confirmed some startling assumptions. The study surveyed some 1600 people ages 8-18, classifying tweens as those between ages 8 and 12 and everyone over age 12 as a teenager. The conductors of the study, Victoria Rideout, M.A and Michael B. Robb, PhD, came to the following conclusions.
On average, tweens spend 4:44 hours on “entertainment screen” media per day with that number rising to 7:22 for teenagers. Note that this does not include time spent for neither schoolwork nor homework. This is a dramatic surge in usage, as more than “twice as many young people watch videos everyday than did in 2015” and “average time spent watching has roughly doubled.” In that four year span the amount of tweens who admitted to watching videos on a daily basis jumped from 24 percent to 56 percent, and teens jumped from 34 percent to 69 percent. We’re no longer in cold turkey territory, we’re approaching the Jack Torrance, freezing to death range now.
These statistics alone should convince you that screens are an addiction for tweens and teens. But what is the impetus for this alarming trend? Not only are screens more portable than ever, but the social situations in which they are found acceptable have expanded. The study claims that there “has been a large drop in the amount of time both tweens and teens spend watching TV on a television set.” Yet, screen-time has risen dramatically. It may be redundant to reexamine the meaning of the word “mobile” in the term “mobile phone” but here we stand. The impediments to imagination growth used to be confined to the supervised gaze of parents. But parents cannot be around their children throughout the entire day, and when they are not we now know precisely what they are doing.
Dissimilar to hard drugs, phones and tablets are becoming acceptable in more social situations. You can’t snort a line off Nonni’s biscotti to rally back after gobbling down the seven fishes. You can, however, send your kids into the den with an iPad so they don’t see Dad pour a little Sambuca into his espresso. Car rides. Churches. Parent-teacher conferences. Freaking funerals! Screens have been garrisoned everywhere by parents as a behavioral suppressant and are being done so with reckless abandon, especially when considering what screen-time looks like practically throughout the day.
Teens, for example, spend about 3:20 hours in class per day. Let’s remove a study hall block, add in a half hour lunch period and another half hour for goofing off to bring this proverbial teen up to 1:40 hours of screen usage. To round it off to two total hours so far, chuck in another twenty minutes for when the student wakes up and immediately scrolls through Instagram. By the time this student comes home, it is about 3:30 PM. Dad returns home around 6:00 PM and Mom, working a double, comes back around 9:00. During that unsupervised time, said teen has brought their screen usage up at least two more hours to a total of four hours. According to our study, we have 3:22 hours to go until our hypothetical teen has used up their screen-time for the day. I’ll be cheeky and let you imagine how and when they are doing it.
This smartphone usage begins before these students are teenagers, too. “By age 11, a majority (53%) of kids have their own smartphone, and by 12 more than two-thirds (69%) do.” Do me a favor and recall when you received your first smartphone. My parents bought me a razor flip phone when I was 15 because in a year I would be driving, so they thought it prudent to have a way to call for help in case of some emergency while on the road. Because they spend most of their time in an area where there is the miraculous combination of phones and adults to answer them, I remain in search of any convincing reason a preteen requires an iPhone. Perhaps parents need their child to have a phone more than the child does, which would be as sad as it is worrisome.
Like all aspects of American life today, this study would not be complete without addressing the cross section of class. Our authors confirm the assumption that “children from wealthier and more-educated families spend less time with screen media than other children do, and the data in this report validates that claim.” This notion is begging us to extrapolate. If imagination is waning as a skill, then it will become a scarce commodity. What a pity it would be to live in a world where creativity is an advantage of the haves and therefore destroyed as a great equalizer for the have-nots.
Enter email. Get Coffee. Read Monthly.
An additional skill for building imagination is reading. Dr. Dennis Sumara argued for it in his 2002 publication Why reading literature in school still matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight, but people with a day-job can thumb through Dr. Perry Klass’ New York Times article, where one quote in particular leaps off of the page.
Interviewed for the article, John S. Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center questioned if “we show them (children) a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little?” He went on to add, “Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.” Therefore, it is only more disheartening to learn that this Common Sense study reported that “a third (32%) of all teens in this country say they read for pleasure less than once a month, if at all.” I will carry the risk of assuming the number of parents who read to their children has plummeted as well.
It is clear that reading - a tool for building imagination - is being exchanged for a bevy of fatuous YouTube channels and in turn parents receive a respite from, well…parenting. To receive their own peace of mind, parents are willing to sacrifice the development of their child’s. But this myopic miscalculation will not come without dangerous reverberations. How will this uninventive, book-avoiding Gen Z - the unavoidable leaders of the 21st Century - impact our collective future?
After sounding the alarms about an impending creativity gap between Gen Z and older generations, one might surmise that I believe the older generations to be well practiced in the art of imagination. While I do believe that those generations are better at imagining, I am hesitant to rate them as good creators overall. Although TikTok dance trends - ten second gyrations where millions of teenagers literally copy the work of one creative individual - are emblematic of this very argument, an honest inspection of older generations won’t reveal them to be a bunch of Pixar imagineers.
It seems that now more than ever Hollywood is regurgitating remakes instead of inventing new screenplays. Even the timeless Fresh Prince of Bel Air was somehow repackaged as a comedy without the comedy. Soundcloud rappers are microwaving samples from the early 2000s to pop out one-and-done hits. Under the guise of patriotic isolationism,
politicians elected culture warriors are recycling “America First” rhetoric to propagate ethnonationalism.
Still, I will defend that although older generations are not brainstorming savants, they are more imaginative than today’s youth. Prepare for whatever cultural, political and societal stagnation we are currently experiencing to only grow more stale. In one of his more notable quotes, the timeless David Humes underlined this concern: “we may remark, that the minds of men are mirrors to one another.” So naturally, we must ask, what happens if this mirror fades? What happens when men and women, boys and girls stop standing in front of this mirror art all?
We might first see the impact of this in our day-to-day interactions with fellow humans. Shannon Spaulding, a professor at Oklahoma State University, explains that Simulation Theory (no, not that one, Neil Degrasse Tyson) “holds that we understand others by mentally simulating being them.” This “crucially involves imagination,” leading one to wonder if a significantly more unimaginative future will fail to advance the social causes reliant upon empathy. It is professor Karsten R. Stueber of Holy Cross, with her concept of Imaginative Empathy, who summarizes this process neatly. Only by adapting an “alternative to the reality of our perspective by transporting ourselves imaginatively into the shoes of another person” can we truly feel for those with unlike, often prejudiced experiences.
Take, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement or other social reform causes. Despite justice being served in court on behalf of George Floyd and his family, federal legislation to reinvent policing in America has bottomed out. This is largely due to conservative politicians spanning both political parties, adhering to the emotional longings of their constituents. As reported by a poll from the University of Virginia Center for Politics, “Trump voters worry that discrimination against whites will increase significantly in the next few years.” Detailing the overwhelming lack of evidence to support this sentiment mandates another essay in itself, but this doesn’t change how millions of White Americans are feeling.
Traditionally, newer generations have served as the vanguard for positive social change. This trend could be thrown into jeopardy if future Americans struggle to empathize with others. Even though the United States is growing more diverse as a whole, communities largely remain an ethnic monolith. As of 2020, Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program found that “after decades of growing diversity and spatial mobility, most Americans still live in racially segregated neighborhoods.” To create the massive voting block needed to pressure lawmakers into legislating change, White Americans must empathize with those being discriminated against. If the ability to imagine wanes, so might this most integral emotional practice. Naturally, this same logic can be applied to men as women’s rights continued to be legislatively assailed across the Bible Belt. Same goes for the nation’s LGBTQ community.
As denoted earlier, children are receiving smartphones and tablets at an increasingly younger age. A Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Deena Skolnick Weisberg commented on the importance pretend-play has in the development of a child’s imagination. Not only does it strengthen Theory of Mind skills in children (the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others), but pretend-play tends to fade as a behavior when children reach ages 9-11. Handing over screens to children when they are supposed to be engaging in make-believe only further precludes the chances they become effective empathizers. The likelihood that our future generations can walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes is being severely curtailed by parents who would rather have children shop online for them instead.
In addition to endangering Theory of Mind skills, Skolnick Weisberg denotes another neurological area that could be at risk. Although she admittedly needs more evidence to be convinced of the research, Skolnick Weisberg reports that some researchers have claimed that “pretending can provide training for children’s developing symbolic thinking capacities, leading to better language skills.” Any inability to express oneself may only exacerbate a mental health crisis that is rising significantly among both pre-teens and adolescents. To boot, America becoming more linguistically diverse will demand that native and non-native speakers sharpen their communication skills.
There is a linkage between pretend play and developing the part of the brain that would make it easier to find success in these endeavors. Blunting these skills might create an America where the youth find themselves not only isolated from their newly-arrived foreign neighbors, but from themselves as well, as marked by an incompetency to articulate their thoughts and unburden themselves from stressors.
Much like this undying ABC article, our discussion on mental health does not end here. It is critical to unpack how imagination can lead to emotionally healthier humans, and Skolnick Weisberg sheds light on the process once more. In an essay titled Imagination and child development, she states that, “Young children use pretending as a way to work through their experiences and emotions and to try out variations on the events that they have seen. Through play, children scale the world down and develop ways of understanding and working out their problems and feelings.” Is this not a similar process to what one might encounter during therapy sessions?
Unfortunately, the mental health assault among Generation Z might not relent, which is alarming after noting that in 2021, over 4 in 10 American teens, “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” according to the CDC. It is not entirely difficult to foresee this problem getting worse as Gen Z transitions into adulthood, only to find themselves unequipped with the skills to engage in the therapy they need. Sadly, a rise in drug-use and self-harm could be on the horizon. Perhaps most disheartening, I see no reasons ensuing generations will stay away from such screen-time usage as well. In fact, when pondering the future of Covid in America, it may be possible that for health and safety reasons, pretend play faces dual enemies in both screen addiction and isolation.
Do not expect the government to meet this challenge, either. Setting their cultural differences aside, a 20th and 21st century history of Conservatism versus Liberalism boils down to how the American government believes it can best help its constituents. Envision Ronald Reagan’s popular claim that government was the problem and Bill Clinton’s campaign to end the welfare state as we know it. Conversely, recall Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the fighting done while crafting it. The Biden administration’s failure to pass universal pre-K and free college, among other progressive agenda items, details where this ideological battle stands today. Nevertheless, the way American politicians and voters approach the role of government in their lives is as simplified as it is stagnant.
Despite successful social work support teams, such as Denver’s STAR program which serves as an example, both federal legislators and local leaders have trouble reinventing policing. Lacking imagination, future generations may do more than simply fail to create new approaches to government, they might fall into regressive policy endeavors. According to Skolnick Wesiberg, creating stories - another form of pretend play - reveals “which rules children will leave behind in reality when they construct fictional worlds” and also divulges “which types of structures they consider fundamental to the way things work.” Being inundated with Euphoria’s raciest subplot debars Gen Z from the time needed for meditating on their own stories. If they cannot fully understand or communicate their own experiences and those of others, how will future voters know which policies they want enacted? When a lucky (or unlucky, depending on your view) few become legislators, how will they ascertain the plight of themselves and others before taking on the daunting task of imagining new policies?
This dystopian view of America’s future becomes scarier when acknowledging its already wobbling ethical code. Mark Johnson, the Philip H. Knight Professor of Liberal Arts for the University of Oregon’s Philosophy Department, wrote about the connection between morality and imagination. After unraveling and criticizing Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty’s essays on moralism, Johnson finally embraces philosopher John Dewey. Dewey accepts that “new moral problems are bound to arise from time to time” in our human world and when they do humans must engage in ”imaginative reasoning” to solve them. In order to deliberate these ethical dilemmas, humans must hold court and imagine how certain virtues, policies, and choices play out in various scenarios. Perhaps this prompted Dewey to remind us “the trial is in imagination, not in overt fact.”
What will happen if Gen Z finds themselves incapable of imagining these scenarios? What if they have so much trouble imagining them that they grow discouraged and indulge their baser instincts instead? If unable or unwilling to partake in Dewey’s “imaginative reasoning” trials, humans may turn to the patterns of the past; outdated, dangerous norms that promote sexism, tribalism and basically any other “ism” that Tucker Carlson is trying to wipe the stain off of. The mental capacity needed to foster a love that isn’t found organically in the soul relies on a strong imagination. I fear this will be lost in the upcoming generations.
Alas, it is time to pour dirt over our ABC article’s burying ground. During their month-long “no iPads” experiment the Klaus family reported what every parent desires to see. Improving vocabulary. More, better play. Self-correcting behavior. A new hobby (sewing.) For just a moment, there was hope. By article’s end I was preparing myself for a surprise: after learning of the benefits, the Klaus parents would severely limit the amount of screen time their children could have, no? No indeed. Of course, after witnessing the ways less screen time helped their children, the Klaus family returned the devices. One of their daughters however, Devon, did leave us with a cliffhanger.
The interviewers checked in on her and inquired about this newfound passion for sewing. Devon’s response: “I had free time to do that, like in the morning I started off doing it. But now, since I have my iPad, I probably won't do that. But I will still use my sewing machine." Will Devon toss aside her iPad in exchange for a chance to sew daddy a new pair of mittens? You be the judge. I have my opinion, which you can likely imagine. Sadly, Devon might not be able to one day.
Perhaps she will be too busy watching South Park. If she barrels through the show like I have and ends up watching season 22, she’ll eventually land on an episode titled Buddha Box. A natural corollary to our Imaginationland trilogy, the Buddha Box plot revolves around Cartman talking to his therapist about how awful the world has become. The melodramatic Cartman tells his therapist that “the only thing that makes me happy, the only thing I can trust…is this.”
He then shows his iPhone to his therapist, who ironically was distracted by his own phone during this conversation. Surely enough, Cartman is diagnosed with anxiety and uses it as an excuse to buy a Buddha Box; a cardboard box equipped with noise cancelling headphones you place over your head to avoid any public engagement. There are children ignoring teachers, parents ignoring children.
With their satire on imagination, South Park presented the gloomy trajectory of creativity and entertainment. Almost a dozen years later they followed up with a commentary on the iPhone’s negative relationship to mental health. With no end in sight, this iconic series will keep plowing forward and revealing more uncomfortable truths about our society. At least we know they won’t lose their ability to imagine.