Why You Shouldn't Freak Out About The Wired Play Date On The New Yorker Cover

The latest cover of The New Yorker captures a scene familiar to many parents.

It's an evocative image of two girls sitting indoors, staring at screens and appearing to ignore one other on a beautiful summer day. They look "alone, together", to use MIT professor Sherry Turkle's phrase. Some folks may see the magazine cover and worry.

Nearly every generation has feared that the next is too caught up in the latest technology, whether it's radio, the telephone, or the television. In centuries past, perhaps children would have been shown glued to books instead of screens.

And this New Yorker cover isn't as simple as it may first appear. As Chris Ware notes in a piece explaining the cover's backstory, the kids in the illustration are playing Minecraft, a video game that a growing number of educators are using to teach programming, spatial relations, computing concepts and teamwork.

"Most educational platforms and games seek to convey content, whether it is math, science, history, or another school subject," Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist and research director of the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California Irvine, wrote in BoingBoing last week. "Minecraft is more like Legos or the Logo programming language. In Seymour Papert's terms: children programming the computer rather than being programmed by it. Sure, you can put school content in a Minecraft world, but at its heart, Minecraft is about constructing and problem solving in a networked social world. The blocky indie vibe just contributes to the culture of DIY creativity in Minecraft and kids feel empowered to make it their own."

So, before decrying what technology is doing to our children, it's worth thinking through what "screen time" means in the age of ubiquitous screens. Are we talking about learning games, racing games or violent games, or watching others compete in games? Are kids doing their homework or collaborating on a school project? Are they watching their favorite TV series or writing fan-fiction about it? Are they solving puzzles, making puzzles or learning how to do both? Are they Skyping with their grandparents or posting anonymous comments or short videos on social media? Which of these activities do we value most? And least?

Parenting in 2015 is too complicated for simplistic moralizing about the relative value of screen time and other activities. We still have a lot to learn.