Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SCREEN-BOUND KIDS – The "Missing" Generation - Part 2

PART 2 (continued from 3/9 post)

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

Research* is just beginning to document the effects of screen addiction—  specifically from children's growing detachment from Nature. So far, studies suggest that it's manifesting in wide-ranging ways: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually.


Richard Louv, in his groundbreaking book Last Child In the Woods, makes an eloquent case for why the phenomenon merits the sweeping moniker, Nature Deficit Disorder. It's a condition which, if left untreated, will surely have profound implications for our country and for the world.

•  Kids who regularly spend time outdoors (especially before adolescence) are more likely to develop positive attitudes towards the environment as adults—something our planet desperately needs if we are to tackle the daunting environmental challenges facing this generation. To protect Nature, decision-makers and voters have to care about it, and to care about it, they must know it and know it well.

•  Just as the United States is beginning to grapple with the out-of-control costs of health care, an epidemic of childhood obesity is weighing down even the best of solutions. This is a complex challenge, one that has to do with more than just poor nutrition choices. But, of the many factors contributing to the problem, the most obvious is sheer inactivity; watching a screen and tapping one's fingers burn almost no calories.

Children's ability to communicate with clarity 
and nuance is evaporating.

•  Spending time outdoors affords other physical and developmental advantages too. Among them are capacities involving spacial relationships, principles of physics, empathy with other living things, a healthy sense of self, problem solving, socialization...well, you get the idea.

•  Children's ability to communicate with clarity and nuance is evaporating. In an environment of sped-up, dumbed-down messages—few if any of them exchanged face to face—too many parents and educators seem to be conceding, perhaps unwittingly, that colorful, evocative language, facial expression and body language no longer matter in how we relate to one another.


• Finally, in an area too often given short shrift in the children-and-nature discussion—one close to my heart—Nature Deficit Disorder is leaving a generation of children starving for the even the most essential, least controversial of spiritual experiences, those involving wonder, awe and gratitude. While kids might feel some emotions from things they see on a screen, those emotions are very unlikely to include wonder and gratitude.

So let's not confuse a declaration that something is "awesome" with the kind of experience Nature can provide. To truly experience any kind of beyond-the-self awareness, young people have to look up and witness something bigger, faster, more beautiful than anything a two- or a six-inch screen—even one packing umpteen thousand pixels—can ever begin to render.


So, what to do.

• First, we, as parents and grandparents, can take a more active role in determining what our young people are reading, watching and doing on their screens. The wisest approach will acknowledge that kids, especially teenagers, value peer acceptance more than their parents could possibly understand. We did when we were young and so will generations to come.

So let them use their technology to stay in touch and have fun. But set limits. Provide appealing alternatives. One example is to schedule unplugged, outdoor family time—Nature walks, camping trips, picnics, or just sitting on the deck or porch and seeing how many small natural wonders each person can spot.

(You can find more ideas for screen-free activities at the websites of many children-, family-, and health-focused organizations, including the Mayo Clinic, the Sierra Club and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Take a closer look at the many myths about how dangerous it is to let kids play outdoors.

• Maybe you can strike a deal: for every hour they spend outside, without any kind of screen, they get to spend another hour web-surfing, texting or gaming.

• Set an example. It's not that kids don't want to enjoy Nature; it's that they've never learned how to do it. Show them. Prime their inherent curiosity by pointing out small wonders and expressing the joys of curiosity, wonder, awe and gratitude.

• Take a closer look at the many myths about how dangerous it is to let kids play outdoors. Instead of listening to the media's self-serving, overwrought, negative slant, do your own research. Louv's Last Child In the Woods is a wonderful place to start, offering more balanced, realistic assessments of risk—and the statistics to back them up.

• Get involved in promoting the integration of unplugged, outdoor activities for kids throughout the community—in their schools and churches, in municipal parks and recreation programming, in health care protocols, and in cultural organizations like museums, orchestras and zoos. And let your elected representatives know why these priorities matter to you and your community.

• Finally, be ready for the push-back. One of kids' main jobs in growing up is to begin finding their own reality, even if that conflicts with that of their parents. Be strong; know what you're talking about; present a united front with other adults in your family; form alliances and share information with other parents in your neighborhood.

• And remember, any normal child will watch you like a hawk to see if you practice what you preach. Be ready to take a long, hard look at your own inattentiveness to the real world. What you object to in your kids' media usage may be the same thing you do every day under the guise of managing your own business, household and social life.

It's a matter of will—rational and moral will, personal and political will.

What a fortunate childhood I had! I didn't realize then what a blessing it was that I could be outdoors most of the time. I just took it for granted; I think my parents did too. Today, though, far fewer kids enjoy that kind of daily connection with Nature...and that troubles and saddens me.

We know many of the causes and symptoms of Nature Deficit Disorder, and we know a number of effective treatments. So it's a matter of will—rational and moral will, personal and political will. As with any societal ill, the movement to reclaim our screen-bound children's Nature health begins with people, one person at a time. Are you ready to be one of them?

* Much of the research on screen addiction is documented on the website of Louv's Children and Nature Network (link: http://www.childrenandnature.org/research/volumes/C106/106)


Emily Brisse said...

Important post, Jeff. I'm in total agreement; I advocate outdoor education whenever possible with my writing students. You might like "The Schools We Need," Erik Reece's essay in the September/October issue of Orion. It hits on some similar points.

Joy Overbeck said...

I really blame the vile crime tv shows for scaring parents so they're not allowing their kids to go out and explore nature as we did when young. I don't watch them but know from sometimes seeing previews that their plots are packed full of vicious murder, rape, and torture, mostly of women and children. Our culture has not only dumbed down, it's dragged down in viciousness and immorality, which increases parents' paranoia about their kids biking around the neighborhood or otherwise doing the independent kid things we did as sprouts. When I was a kid we lived near a big meadow with a little stream running through it. We frolicked around there, discovered tadpoles actually turning into frogs, crickets, birds nesting in the grass, big excitement! I remember summertime lying on my back in the tall grass where nobody could see me,
staring at the clouds and making them into ships, goblins, all kinds of stuff. By contrast, my neighbor's two girls are 12 and 13, and it wasn't until lately that she let them walk home from the school bus without being picked up -- even tho the stop is only a couple of blocks away and we live in a very peaceful suburban neighborhood. Why? Several men in cars have tried to pick kids up around here. So the paranoia is pretty real. Very sad. I really think sick people get even sicker ideas from these shows. But here's a fun idea for younger kids: get a book on animal scat (poop -- kids love poop!) and go on a hike in the woods, challenging them to spot the different kinds. They'll have lots of fun! And let them know the Creation is God's handiwork,it's there so we can see Him saying hi in the beauty all around us!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Emily -- Thanks for your comment...and for everything you're doing to promote outdoor ed. I'll check out the Orion piece you mention. Thanks for that tip.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey, Joy -- Thanks so much for dropping by -- and for your thoughtful comment! What wonderful childhood memories you have. It will be up to those of us who remember how it used to be to recreate that kind of opportunities for today's kids.
I don't know what I'd do as a parent of a young child when there are confirmed attempts to pick up kids in my neighborhood. But I still believe the extent of the paranoia is unwarranted.
BTW - love your idea of the poop hunt!

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