Thursday, March 8, 2012

SCREEN-BOUND KIDS – The "Missing" Generation - Part 1

Every generation has its love-hate relationship with technology.

In the 18th century it was steam power and the spread of the industrial revolution through Europe, the United States and Japan. In the 19th century it was transportation, telegraphy and the incandescent light bulb; in the 20th, widespread electrification, the automobile and airplane, television and finally the introduction of personal computers and the Internet.

My fondest wish was for a wired walkie-talkie—
so I could talk with one of my buddies maybe 
thirty yards away.

Every one of these advances brought profound change in people's lives, much of it for the better. But in each case there have also been troubling societal and cultural trade-offs.

Now, in the 21st century, it seems a whole century's worth of technological change has occurred in just its first decade. This time it's the continuing explosion of the Internet, the emergence of cloud computing and further miniaturization of computers applied to communication, entertainment and social networking.


When I consider that, as a boy, my fondest wish was for a wired walkie-talkie—so I could talk with my brother or one of my buddies maybe thirty yards away (heck, I could have just yelled!)—the range of electronic "toys" available today is almost deliriously exciting.

A phone the size of a deck of cards puts me in touch wirelessly, in seconds, with someone on the other side of the world. Even more amazing, that person—let's say a middle-class Chinese in a rural location—can afford the technology.

Here's the problem: not one of these historic technological advances—at least up to television in the latter half of the 20th century—has come even close to the rate at which developments since then have changed children's relationship with Nature.

The problem, as I see it, has developed along several parallel tracks. The first is that, as information and entertainment have gotten channeled to smaller and smaller screens, those screens now can accompany us virtually anywhere.

Parents are less likely than ever to allow—
much less encourage—children to explore 
and play outdoors.

The second track involves parents' well-intentioned efforts to educate, engage and protect their kids. Hoping it would help their children, these parents—and I'm afraid this means a significant percentage of parents in the developed world—have failed to recognize the potential for abuse of the technology and do not set reasonable limits on its use for inane recreation.

While one might expect this ability to be in touch anywhere, any time to have eased parents' concern with their children's safety, the exact opposite seems to have happened. Whether from the increasingly sensationalist fear-mongering by self-serving news media and politicians, the stain of paranoia on the post-9/11 American psyche, or some other influence, parents are if anything less likely than ever to allow—much less encourage—children to explore and play outdoors.

Unfortunately, industries and institutions which purport to support children and families—the entertainment world, cultural organizations, government and even schools—have been complicit in the growing alienation of kids from Nature. (Everyone seems to feel its more important—or at least easier—to keep kids occupied than to let them explore, create and learn.)

The third, and perhaps most troubling, aspect of the technology-Nature clash is that the omnipresence of little screens in children's lives has blurred the distinction between what happens on those various screens and what is actually happening right in front of them.

In this area, as in the others I've touched on, technology's not the only culprit. Content seems to consistently over-estimate consumers' patience and underestimate their intelligence. Too many kids, I'm afraid, believe "reality" programming, with its shallow relationships, inane dialog, petty arguments and self-serving, "gotcha" morality, is in any way real.

Considering the well-recognized tenet of childhood development that kids tend to rise (and fall) to the level of expectations shown by their parents, teachers and other forces influential in their lives, we are, literally, letting them down.

Every day, it seems, real-life, first-hand experience comprises a smaller and smaller share of the average child's development—with troubling implications for their physical, intellectual and spiritual health.

C'mon, you know you've seen it: several teenagers, all friends, sitting together somewhere outdoors. It's a gorgeous day. Maybe there's an event going on; certainly there are clouds drifting, shape-shifting, overhead; trees sway in the breeze; birds fly and sing.

They're "in touch" with something else—someone who's not even there or, worse yet, something that's not even happening concurrently.

Yet not a one of the kids realizes any of this… not to mention what his/her friends may be thinking or feeling. No, they're "in touch" with something else—either someone who's not even there or, worse yet, a program of some sort, something that's not even happening concurrently. They are, in most senses of the word, missing.

"Hey, sup? OMG ges whos c-ing Donna? Where r u? CU on FB?

Not long ago, I shared this in one of my posts:
Ask kids where's their favorite place to play, and you may be as troubled as I am by the answer. More and more, they're saying that place is indoors. Say what? With the astounding variety of places to go, things to discover and adventures to be had in Nature, why on this precious earth would a child prefer to play inside? The kids' answer: because that's where the electrical outlets are.
Already, in just a matter of a few years, this has all changed. With more and more of communications now wireless, kids don't even need an outlet any more.

Here are some statistics compiled by the Parent Further Research Institute:

Nearly one out of three kids between 12 and 17 years old sends more than 100 texts a day.

  • The average 8- to 18-year-old now spends 7-1/2 hours every day with screen-fed media, from playing video games, to watching TV, to surfing the internet, to texting.
  • This amounts to 2-1/4 more hours each day in front of a screen compared to young people five years ago.
  • Seventy-five percent of teenagers now have cell phones, and 58 percent of 12-year-olds.
  • Three out of four young people (ages 8 to 18) now own an mp3 music player (such an iPod) compared to only 18 percent just five years ago.
In addition, a Pew Research Center study says nearly one out of three kids between 12 and 17 years old sends more than 100 texts a day.

So kids are screen-bound; what's wrong with that?

(To be continued -- make sure not to miss part two by subscribing to One Man's Wonder by email or through the RSS feed)


Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.