The man next to me on the plane proudly showed off a photo of his grandson and said the boy had posed an interesting question. “Grandpa, what did you do for fun before smartphones?” The grandfather chuckled and replied, “Well, we went outside and played a lot of games, like jacks and hopscotch and tag.” So, after hearing more, his grandson was particularly excited about this “new” thing called hopscotch. So he asked, “Grandpa, can you download it to my phone?”
Such is the world in which we live. As a child, I would play with friends under the hot Florida sun every day after school. When we got thirsty, the best water didn’t come from a bottle, but flowed straight out of the nearest garden hose. And a game of tag or hide and seek often ended only when we were called home or the sun went down. Today, it seems our children spend more time tagging friends in photographs and playing online games in a virtual world instead of in the real one.
The effects of this cultural change can be seen in a variety of areas. One of them is childhood obesity, in which physical inactivity, along with diet, is a main contributing factor. The obesity rate has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Since obese children are more likely to become obese adults, the CDC reports that they are at greater risk of having a series of associated long-term health issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.
While childhood obesity has received plenty of attention, evidence is surfacing that shows how the effects, both positive and negative, of the ubiquitous technology in our society are even more far-reaching. On the plus side, children now have almost instantaneous access to information and experiences like never before. Finding out how much an elephant weighs or the temperature of the sun is a simple search engine away. Watching the 2000-mile migration of two million wildebeests takes only a couple of clicks, and it’s a breeze for a child to stay in touch with friends and family with Skype, texting or email.
These advances can come with a variety of costs. Author Nicholas Carr offers the engaging analogy that reading a book to find an answer is akin to being a scuba diver who is immersed in a sea of words, while searching the Internet is more like zipping along the surface of information on a jet ski. Using electronic devices as the primary means of communication can inhibit children from developing essential intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that allow them to create deep and meaningful relationships throughout their lives.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has expressed concerns over children’s media access for decades, just released a policy statement, titled “Children, Adolescents and the Media”. The AAP definition of media runs the gamut, from traditional television to the “new media” that includes cell phones, tablets and social media.
The introduction states “media literacy and pro-social uses of media may enhance knowledge, connectedness and health,” but also warns “the evidence is now clear that they (media) can and do contribute substantially to many different risks and health problems and that children and teenagers learn from, and may be negatively influenced by, the media”. Among the more startling findings from the AAP professionals is that children between 8 and 10 spend an average of nearly eight hours a day using media. For older children and teenagers, that number jumps to more than 11 hours of daily media viewing.
So after the irony of scouring the Internet’s endless search results to find information for this article, I decided to solicit perspectives that are a bit closer to home by asking for the input of experts who spend their days with our kids.
Heather Hackett, child advocate and founder of Be Me Books, Inc., has witnessed the steady march of the digital age. She stressed the link between advancing technology and retreating interpersonal skills. While acknowledging that technology is a fantastic tool that “allows us to have more information at our fingertips than ever before,” she also gave a sobering assessment of the downside. “We now have a generation of children who cannot communicate unless they are typing an email into their computer, a social media post on their iPad or a text on their smartphone.”
Cindy Brown Goodknecht, a first grade teacher in Florida with 22 years of experience, entered the classroom just as computers were being introduced. Interestingly enough, they were initially utilized for tutoring programs that targeted lower-performing students. Over the years, she has witnessed the changes in teacher-student interaction. “No longer do the students find their teacher’s voice an engaging method of delivery. Read-alouds aren’t as fun for the teacher because students just aren’t actively listening,” she said.
This conversation wouldn’t be complete without getting a parental point of view. I spoke with Cindy Fultz Carner, an involved mother of two young girls. Carner highlighted ways technology has been successfully integrated into her older daughter’s Kindergarten education. “The school provides 3 different online resources for her, and she is excited about them. She is an advanced reader with an eagerness to learn, so we actually encourage her to use the resources online. She is learning to answer math problems quickly, and there are always new books for her to read online. The technology aspect of it keeps her interested,” she said.
Her enthusiasm is paired with parental guidance. “My kids do not use a computer unless I can see it. It is my job to make sure they are safe. You can’t use any kind of technology as a babysitter, only as a tool for learning,” she said.
Carner sums up the overriding sentiment when it comes to technology and our children. With so much new information and so many new options, the same old rules of parenting still apply. We ultimately need to be fully engaged in our children’s lives, lead by example and be there to set reasonable boundaries as they explore exciting new frontiers. Lastly, let’s not forget that a neighborhood park is also a place of wonder that provides real life adventures… and, for many kids, that’s a breath of fresh air.
About Derick Wilder
As a regular contributor, Derick Wilder focuses on children and families. He’s a director for Playball, a child development organization, and heads Reading Giraffe, a literacy initiative. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-487-4687.