Reader Request Week 2021 #1: Creative Kids in a Computer Age

Spice the cat, sitting at my desk while I write this piece.
John Scalzi

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time to start this year’s Reader Request Week! To kick things off, Matt S asks:

Computers today are mostly consumption devices. Tablets, cell phones, smart watches… How do I make sure my young son will grow up having the passion to CREATE instead of only passively being entertained?

Well, here’s the thing: Lots of media-bearing technologies are mostly consumption devices, and historically more so than computers. Television is primarily a consumption device. Film is primarily a consumption device. Radio is primarily a consumption device. Books are primarily a consumption device. LPs, CDs, cassettes and 8-tracks: consumption devices. Newspapers and magazines: consumption devices.

Moreover, each of them in their day caused lots of handwringing about idleness and lives wasted by them. Go back to the 18th and 19th centuries and you’ll see lots of griping about novels and how they wreck the mind, especially when women read them. More recently, I don’t need to remind anyone over the age of 40 of how television spent decades as the “big bad” of the media landscape, promising endless hours of mind-wasting entertainment that sucked people’s will to live, or, at least, to go outside. No matter where or how you got your entertainment, be assured that at some point in its past it was viewed as an evil, something making people passive, complacent and uncreative.

What’s different about the computer? Mostly that as a technology, it is multipurpose where previous media technologies were single-purpose. Now your computer, tablet or phone — which are all of course just computers of varying sizes — can be the TV and radio and book and newspaper and a dessert topping and a floor wax (incidentally, if you got that last joke, you’re officially old). This gives rise to the complaint that all people do anymore is look into a single screen; this is not inaccurate, but also vaguely unfair. One device obviates the need for most people to have to apprehend several different things for their entertainment. When I’m looking at a computer screen I could be watching a video or reading a book or making a comment on social media, and so on.

And as a creator — well, look, I’m thrilled that computers have made it easier for people to consume. The rise of the cell phone and the rise of the audio book as more than a marginally popular creative medium are highly correlated, and at the moment audiobooks comprise a good third of my income. Likewise, much of my readership prefers the eBook format to print, and carry all my books with them wherever they go, as data on (or accessible by) that phone, tablet or laptop. And, of course, hello, you’re reading this on my web site, which is entirely dependent on a computer screen. Thank you for staring into screens, people! You’re feeding my pets!

Another thing: The computer is indeed mostly a consumption device, but it has also made it much easier for people to create as well. Once again: Hi, welcome to my web site! For twenty-two years now I have been self-publishing here, and in that course of time I’ve written millions of words with no more effort than it takes to type them and hit a “publish” button. Likewise, I can create photography and present it electronically, with far less effort and cost than photography would have required in the film era. Equally, I can create a video and present it to the world in minutes. Or record a song! Or whatever!

Whether that ease of creating and publishing is a good thing overall is an entirely different discussion, mind you, and not one I’m going to essay in this discussion. However, I can say it’s been good for me. I wrote my first short stories as a teen on a computer. I’ve never had a creative or professional life where a computer of some sort or another has not been actively involved, either as the primary instrument of creation or as a major component of its publication.

So with respect to your kid having the urge to create in the age of computers, Matt, I would say: Don’t worry about it too much. If your kid has the urge to create at all (some people don’t! And that’s okay!), then the computer isn’t going to squash that out of him — in fact, it will give him tools to create, and he will use those as he will, in conjunction with or exclusive of, physical creative tools.

What you should be doing as a parent, I think, is to encourage that creativity when it arises. If your kid likes taking pictures, show him how to do it on your phone or a tablet and then let him run around taking photos of the things he likes. Drawing? Fire up a sketching program and let him play with that. Lots of kid-oriented video games have an explicitly creative component to them, encouraging the players to build their own scenarios and characters. And so on. If you make the point that the computer is for creating as well as consuming, then your kid will incorporate that into his worldview. Now, it also means you will need to be actively engaged in how your kid is using those creative tools on the computer, but as a parent, you should be doing that anyway.

Should you be encouraging your kid to do creative things away from the computer? Sure, there is more to life than just staring at a screen. That said, in my experience the best way to encourage creativity in (most) children is, one, not to force it and, two, not to look down at the direction of creativity your child wants to explore. Do you want your child to be creative, or do you want him to be creative specifically in a way that hits all the “creative” checkmarks in your brain? If the latter, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Also, here is a real thing: While you absolutely should make time in your child’s life for creativity and play, and encourage both without a goal in mind other than “hey, let my kid have fun,” also realize that before every creator was known for their creations, they were consuming media and entertainment — lots of it. That’s how we learned to create: By seeing what others did and then gradually seeing ourselves doing the same. If you saw me at eight years old, or fifteen years old, or, hell, at twenty-five years old, you would not have seen someone who appeared to be destined to become a best-selling novelist. You’d see someone staring into a lot of screens, watching what other people had put on them. Consuming media is not inherently a problem! Creativity is not inspired in a vacuum! People’s creativity is on their schedule, not anyone else’s!

As they say: The kids are all right, in this era just like the ones before it. As a parent, realize you can use the computer to create as well as consume, and make it part of your parenting plan to get your kid to realize it too. Then let him explore and play and find what interests him creatively, online and off. And if all he wants to do right now is watch things, don’t panic. That’s part of creativity too. It’ll pay off in his own creativity, or not, but in the meantime you’re supporting the creativity of others, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

22 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #1: Creative Kids in a Computer Age”

  1. So much of consumer technology started out as practical devices for internal use. Even television was not originally meant to be in everyone’s living room as entertainment–it was a means of in-studio communication in the 1920s. The internet in the 1970s was for government and educational institutions, hardly social media. Radio was for the military and ships at sea. You get the point.

    I say keep the human creative mind open, but technology is only as good as we are.

  2. Question author here: thanks for the answer, cause now I got a daughter too! Looking forward to using this answer as the ultimate trump card if my wife ever complains about too much screen time.

  3. I’m old enough that I started out writing stories on paper and then got very excited when I could lay my hands on a secondhand mechanical typewriter. All of that worked well enough for me at the time but I wouldn’t like to go back there.

    I remember having to go to actual libraries to do research. Now, if I want to write a story set in a New York neighbourhood, I use Google Maps and see what type of buildings there are, restaurants, shops, parks and metro stations.
    Computers and the Internet have made writing – especially the ‘background stuff’ – immeasurably easier.

  4. Minecraft: It looks at first glance like a mindless time sink, but it is about building stuff: just virtually. If the kid were doing the same thing with Legos, we would stand around and admire their creativity. Minecraft is the same thing, but in a medium more relevant to the 21st century.

    As an added bonus, my (middle school) kid’s math teacher told me that the kids nowadays instinctively intuit Cartesian coordinates, which he ascribes to Minecraft.

  5. Thank you, John, for officially noting that I am officially old.

    Can I assume my certificate is in the mail, or is there a separate request process for documentation?

  6. I’m pretty sure my mom is gonna show up to glare at me for saying this, but: I think the best thing you can do to help your kids be creative is to let them be passionate about the things they’re passionate about, give them the tools to create something they like, and not hassle them about how they should be creating (because that turns it from a passion to an obligation, and yeah, I’m gonna go do anything other than one more piece of work).

    And y’know, as an adult, that means that I read a whole lot of speculative fiction… and I write a decent chunk of fic, none of which will ever have Objective Creative Value other than making me (and hopefully some of the people who read it) happy, and I’m genuinely ok with that. And some years, I’ve written nothing but read a whole lot, and that’s ALSO ok.

  7. As someone I know recently told me:

    The difference between doing something and not doing something is…..doing something.

    I find this interesting in many ways, and think it applies here also.

    Create or don’t create, the technology is not the issue. My daughter has an ipad and is creating art. My son….not so much.

  8. I didn’t write creatively between high school (class of ’71) and finding out how to do so on a computer in the mid 80’s. (I worked at a major manufacturer, free access!)

    Typewriters didn’t allow me to correct easily, the computer did.

    It never became more than a hobby. Those ‘lost’ years? Who knows?

    This I do know – give kids access to as many different tools as possible, and they’ll find the one that fits.

  9. Ehhh, I don’t know. I do think that increasingly “addictive” consumable media pulls us away from other pursuits and makes it harder to deal with lower-gratification things (and a lot of creative pursuits end up being lower-gratification things than the most recently introduced higher-reward media).

    When I think of what I did with friends as a kid in houses that did Not have all-you-can-consume TV vs. what I did with friends as a kid in houses that Did have all-you-can-consume TV, there’s really no comparison at all. Kids with a continual media stream were either watching it or re-enacting it. Kids without were… well, doing other things. We wrote long, ridiculous stories; were more physically active; had philosophical conversations; made up music; did craft things; developed elaborate games; had ridiculous puppet shows or role play things; did “experiments” with stuff like “what leftover halloween candies go well together?” [nuts+gum: bad combination] or “can we build a [?]” or in less ideal cases played with fire.

    I’m very much in favor of using computers to create – I’m skeptical of unlimited screen time both because physically moving is a healthy thing and because we now have social media and other sources which are actively trying to gain continual eyeball coverage and also trying to gain emotional control over us.

    I guess: as a kid, if I could watch anything on TV, I did! But I remember very little of that. If I could play video games or watch someone play video games, I did! And again, while I still have the muscle memory for a lot of those things, it’s not an especially “oh, yes, that was good time” thing – it was just short-term enjoyable. And if allowed to be immersed in a book instead of socially interacting: I did, if the book was good enough! But that meant I missed a lot. I’m a huge fan of books, but they shouldn’t eliminate other good nutrients (and some books teach bad things; the social messages from Twilight, for instance, are just… oy. Stalking is not the Height of Romance.).

    So: more-immersive/addictive consumables, some of which are actively working on making people easier hits for sales by destroying their self-esteem: some are hazardous directly, and all are worth keeping an eye on to see what healthy or more-long-term-rewarding things they’re outcompeting. To take the invasive-species metaphor, some of these are poison ivy (not doing you any favors period), some are crab grass (inert but outcompeting better things), and some are blackberry vines (yep, that is good fruit; nope, you do not want your entire local park to be taken over by blackberry vines, they need to be controlled to some degree).

    How to help kids learn to balance well and have mental freedom, though, I do not know. For myself as well as for kids, obviously, as I write this immediate-gratification, low-value comment…

  10. I totally agree with John: a computer can be a powerful tool (well, I make a living from “being good with computers”). But as with everything else: there’s a lot of “content” designed to suck one’s mind out of your skull (there’s also bad literature, horrible movies and TV programming; see also: junk food, clothing which doesn’t survive first contact with the washing machine, etc). Parents can provide guidance on how to find the good stuff, explain why and how the bad stuff is bad and be supportive with steep learning curves. Be aware: just banning something “because I say so” will make that banned thing much more interesting.

  11. This is excellent advice, I feel! If you have art supplies in your house for kids to play with, musical instruments, books, etc. kids who want to create will create!

    KC, your comments seem complementary to John’s. No one is advocating for unlimited screen time, just noting that learning your artistic area through consumption is part of how you become creative. Substitute visiting museums / attending concerts / etc for “media consumption,” and there you are.

  12. I can’t be old, we’re the same age. Even though I saw that episode live one Saturday night…

  13. @Lisa Hirsch,

    To some degree complementary – but it seemed in the “Moreover” paragraph that he was discounting that novels did outcompete other pursuits, as did TV, etc., leading some people to be unhealthily sedentary, for instance. Yes, they did not completely obliterate the creative production of their generations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were totally fine/neutral in effects. It’s similar to the “every generation has had hand-wringing about reduced attention span” argument… it’s not the end of civilization like it’s usually portrayed [well: okay: the alternative facts era is maybe having a run for it which might exceed previous entries], but attention spans have in fact reduced with the introduction of various technologies, with a variety of tangible results, not all good; not all bad.

    And specifically, I don’t think enough attention was paid to the predatory-upon-the-consumer aspects – the games that use psychological tricks to keep you hooked, deliberately emotionally manipulative social media companies, etc. It’s not an “all these things on your computer are options and they’re all fine options and you have free choice” situation, like choosing which instrument you’re going to play or what art form you’ll choose to express yourself in, but a “some of these options are poisonous and also deliberately addictive” situation, where the approximate default result is that healthier options are predominately outcompeted by unhealthy options, especially when someone’s already in a bad place. It’s nearly impossible for a legitimate, moral, and psychologically healthy community to provide the same psychological buzz that QAnon provided. When something has cocaine and morphine in the mix, this works out… badly.

    It’s also a negative, for many people, to have all the things on one device – it makes it harder to keep away from the things clamoring for their attention which should not be getting their attention right now (although there are various ways around some of that, like deleting apps or blocking sites in your browser). If you have to cross the room to pick up the book you know you won’t be able to put down again, that’s different from having tasty bite-size chunks of content prodded in your face when you use your electronic device specifically to look something up in the dictionary, or check recipe directions, or verify store hours, or see whether a particular individual has sent you a message that’s urgent. It’s complex, and I’m not convinced that the complexity is by default a net neutral.

  14. Let us not forget that even today, as we worry about kids (grandkids for me–and I do remember the dessert topping / floor wax) spending too much screen time, the computer and its allies are, indeed, both consumptive and at least potentially creative media. A close friend despaired at how much time their nephew spent glued to video games; he’s now creating the damn things himself, successfully enough to have bought a McMansion in a very spendy neighborhood. In his early twenties.

    If there’s one area in which something can be both consumptive and creative, I think it’s probably musical instruments (although I’m not sure what to think about John’s “best played by musically gifted cephalopods” six-neck guitar). Pick up a (single neck) guitar and learn somebody else’s song, maybe by rote: consumptive. Start riffing on it: creative. Write a new one: even creativer.

    I happen to come from a classical music background. My grandparents were Viennese, and in their time, around the turn of the 20th century, just about any middle or higher class home in Vienna had a piano, and people learned how to play them as a matter of basic education. Mostly consumption devices: there was no such thing as recorded music, but sheet music was everywhere, largely for popular songs. When a recognized creator–Brahms, say–wrote a new symphony, the way it was distributed beyond the big (and not so big) cities with orchestras and concert halls was as so-called “piano reductions:” the same piece recast, usually by the original composer, for two people playing four-handed on one piano (or sometimes four, playing eight-handed on two).

    And then there’s chamber music (I’m a cellist). Many families back then assigned a different instrument to each successive kid, just so they’d have a family quartet (or larger group–Austria was Catholic). That’s where the line between consumption and creation blurs: playing a piece exactly as it’s written, note for note, is more like consumption. Start adding interpretation (as good chamber players do) and it starts getting creative.

    Jazz, whatever the era, often much more so. Even we classically-trained musicians are lured in that direction–look at what Yo-Yo Ma has done with tango, or with his Silk Road ensemble. For that matter, for those of us who like 1930s and -40s “Gypsy Jazz,” just about any decent-size town probably has monthly “Django Djams” at which even we stuffy classical types are made to feel welcome.

  15. This reminds me of the conversations I have with my grandmother, where she’s baffled that I can spend the majority of my leisure time playing video games without getting bored (keeping in mind that I successfully adult in all aspects). She fundamentally does not grasp that video games provide a wide variety of experiences. The different genres can be compared to different genres in film (a rom com is a different experience from a horror flick), but then the interactive nature means that you are being engaged in different ways. Playing Breath of the Wild is a very different experience from Dark Souls, even though both are third person action games where you engage enemies in melee combat.

    Whenever I see the “I’m concerned about how much time they’re spending on screens” argument it feels very similar. Now, I will grant that a concern that not enough physical activity is going on is a real concern. But all too often I see that parents who want to restrict screen time are fine with their children doing some other non-physical activity, such as reading. Is there a material difference between reading a paper book and reading a book on a computer screen? As our esteemed host points out, there is a LOT you can do on a computing device. And reductively referring to it all as “screens” indicates to me that you aren’t actually trying to understand what your child is doing, you’re just complaining about how the current youth is different from your youth. So stop demonizing the “screens” and start focusing on the activities.

  16. My 12 year old daughter uses her phone and computer to be incredibly creative, in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined at her age (and I HAD a computer at her age, which was unusual for the time).

    She uses her phone to make music videos on Tik-Tok. She uses video editing software to cut and splice things together. She uses drawing software on the PC with an old Wacom tablet we have to make cartoons and drawings. She does mixed media things where she’ll create art on the computer, print it out, and combine it with painting and sculpture.

    For those that are inclined to the creative, they’ll use whatever tools that they have at hand to create. As John alluded to, some people read novels and decide they just want to read more novels, while others read novels and decide they want to write them. The difference now is that literally anyone with a computer or a phone can trivially publish themselves, for free, in any number of outlets.

    I read a ton of web serials and self-published works on sites like Royal Road,, and Archive of our own (AO3). Even just 10-15 years ago, self publishing on the web publishing was a bit of a novelty. Now with sites like Patreon, some folks have turned it into a living.

    We’re living in the world of the future!

  17. I would like to support what KC is saying. Also I want to add, growing up is about testing and experiencing one’s boundaries, especially during adolescense. And then this person who needs to find out about boundaries is confronted with a device which has none. And therein lies a big difference to books or TV. A book doesn’t show hardcore pornos and screws with one’s budding sexuality. A TV hasn’t got a class chat where you’re supposed to answer until the small hours or you’ll be relentlessly bullied at the next day.
    The problem with screen time goes way beyond just the lack of exercise.

  18. I’m officially (and gleefully) old.

    I think a key issue in our attitude towards computers is that, for the first several decades, you couldn’t just consume content on them; you had to engage with the technology.

    Now we have a generation of older adults who learned how to operate the technology (and in many cases build it), and “kids” who only know how to consume content on it, in spite of the lingering jokes about tech-savvy kids and fumbling parents. I know my own stepson could barely find the Start button, and was a helpless patsy for every kind of online scam.

    That’s the previous era, and this is the new era. I hadn’t thought of the parallels between device content consumption and other forms of media; I find the idea very comforting.

  19. Let’s not forget that one can be creative with the hardware aspect of computers as well.
    With wonderful things like Arduino’s and Raspberry Pi’s you can make so many things.
    Does your dog need a Twitter driven treat dispenser? Does your garden needs a vision/AI driven anti-deer water cannon? Does your cosplay need lighting effects and sounds?want to monitor the conditions in your house/garden/boat/bowels?
    Or just write your own software?
    Try for example

  20. I grew up, for the first 16 years of my life, in a religious background that so prized hard work and fetishized ending your day dog-tired, they had no room in their lives for, and in fact officially forbade the enjoyment of, TVs, radios, smart phones, movies or computers. Hell, they barely had room for newspapers. In fact, when they finally accepted the use of home internet in 2010, I joked that “the religion I grew up in joined the 20th century just in time for the 21st.”

    I was one of those creative kids who chafed against all of that.If I’d grown up in an earlier era, I’d have probably become a ham radio geek. As it was, creative people like Dr. Demento, J.R.R Tolkien and the Star Trek episode recaps of James Blish were my ticket to different, diverse worlds and points of view.

    I have relatives who are still in the old church, who believe that the earth is flat and that we never landed on the moon. My reaction to that is: “do you want to know how you get such stunning ignorance? Because, banning all such consumption-oriented “Big Bad” media is how you get such stunning ignorance of reality.

  21. And therein lies a big difference to books or TV. A book doesn’t show hardcore pornos and screws with one’s budding sexuality. A TV hasn’t got a class chat where you’re supposed to answer until the small hours or you’ll be relentlessly bullied at the next day.

    You seem to have had remarkably limited experiences with either TV or books, if you think that. Lots of books (and TV for that matter) with hard core porno and if you think that children haven’t always figured out ways to get access to both…well, I own this bridge that I want to sell…

    As to being bullied for not communicating enough/being up on current culture enough, that too is hardly new (I remember the desperation with which my older sister wanted her own telephone line so she could stay in touch at all hours).