Sunday, February 27, 2011

Social Networking ... Old School

"We had social networking when I was a kid. I think it was called 'Outside'".

This witty comment, which I came across recently, has inspired this week's post. Ironically, the term "Social Networking", meaning FaceBook, MySpace and any number of other internet chat forums is, in a sense, an oxymoron. It might be argued that those who spend a significant amount of time "networking" with others via this medium are actually losing the ability to network in person. Put some of these people in a room with other flesh-and-blood human beings and it becomes painfully apparent that they have no idea how to interact with others who are standing right in front of them. Perhaps a more appropriate term might be "Anti-social Networking".

I once saw an episode of "60 Minutes" which examined why young children nowadays seem to have lost the ability to create their own fun. To be fair, the feature wasn't talking about FaceBook or even computers in general. It was talking more about modern parenting styles. Many parents enroll their children in any number of recreational programs; anything from pee-wee sports to dance to general fitness to French immersion to computer camp. These programs, while well-meaning, are so structured and controlled by adults that the kids who participate in them need not exercise any kind of spontaneity. They simply follow the schedules and participate in the routines. Put one of these kids outside by themselves and simply say to them "Go play" (you know, the way parents used to do back in the seventies and earlier) and they (the kids) are at a complete loss. They have no idea how to begin.

Admittedly, this is slightly beside my original point, but electronic media only exacerbates the situation. Many kids have gotten to the point where they're practically incapable of amusing themselves without the aid of some type of electronic gadget. There was an episode of "The Simpsons" (a television show which is widely acclaimed for its thought-provoking social commentary) in which Marge Simpson managed to eliminate all violence from "The Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon show. The result was a cartoon that was so bland and boring that the kids didn't enjoy it any longer and, consequently, they stopped enjoying television in general. Without the medium of TV, they suddenly had to find an alternate form of entertainment, and this happened...

video
(c) Twentieth Century Fox, 2001

Hard though it may be for the younger generation to believe, this is what childhood used to be like (although I admit that the May Pole may have been a bit over the top). I lived in a neighborhood with lots of other kids when I was a boy, and most of those kids played together outdoors. Of course, there were the usual matches of sandlot baseball and street hockey, but I was never much of an athlete even in my tender (and thinner) years.

I recall one of the rare times that a few of the older boys let me join in a game of street hockey with them. There was one particularly stocky kid by the name of Nicky who had a notoriously wicked slap shot (for his age, at least). Every goalie within a six block perimeter knew and feared Nicky. He happened to be playing on this particular occasion. At one point, I happened to be standing between Nicky and my team's hapless goaltender when he (Nicky) wound up and let loose one of his infamous canons. I was unable to move out of the line of fire in time and so the Indian rubber ball smacked the blade of my stick with full force and ricocheted off to Scranton, PA or some equally obscure location.

You'd think I'd have been fine, having blocked the shot with my stick the way one is supposed to, albeit completely by accident, but the impact sent a tremor up the shaft of my stick and through my forearms that made me feel like Warner Brothers' Wile E. Coyote after whacking a petrified rock (that was meant to be a Road Runner) with a club. In the cartoon, I believe he disappeared down the road, still vibrating as he went. That's how I felt.

Because of experiences like this one, I preferred to participate in less sports-oriented games; the kind of games that kids used to invent on their own back in the old days. Games like "Mother May I", "Red Light/Green Light" and "Red Rover". Remember those?

For the benefit of the under-forty crowd who may not, in fact, remember those, let me give you some idea of what I'm talking about. "Red Rover" was always a favorite in my neighborhood. You needed a minimum of six kids to play it; ten or more was better. The kids would form two teams with the same number of kids on each side (if there was an odd number of kids participating, it was okay for one side to have an extra member). Both teams would form a line abreast, each facing the other, join hands and take turns calling a member from the other team with a sing-song chant that went, for example, "Red Rover, Red Rover we call Johnny over!" The kid whom the other team had summoned would then have to run full-speed at what he perceived to be the weakest link in the chain of joined hands and try to break through it. The calling team, on the other hand, would try to stop the summoned kid without him breaking the chain. If the runner managed to break the chain, he could return to his or her team. If not, he had to join the other team. The game ended when one team had acquired all but one player (yes, you could have a "chain" consisting of only two kids).

Needless to say, the smallest, slowest, lightest kids tended to be called first but, eventually, there was no choice but to call the "canonball" kids; you know, the big, burly kids who looked like the Tasmanian Devil as they approached; nothing more than a whirling dust-cloud with the occasional arm or leg appearing and disappearing around the perimeter, while each kid in the chain hoped that he wasn't heading for one of their hands.

These were the types of games that kids used to invent when they had no electronic gadgets to keep them entertained. Don't get me wrong. I'm not vilifying electronic amusements. I enjoy a good computer game as much as the next person, and I realize that criticizing social networking may come off as a tad hypocritical coming from someone who's busily posting on his blog. However, it's hard to deny that all this technology has robbed kids of the opportunity to create their own fun through sheer imagination, and it has greatly reduced face-to-face social interaction. The sad result, I think, is that kids have lost one of the real joys of childhood without even realizing it.

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