Children of the twenty-first century can navigate distant worlds from their video game controllers, but are not equipped with an understanding of the real world outside the window. Fascinating entertainment options have them hooked almost as soon as they can focus their eyes.
As parents and teachers, we know that too much technology is bad for children. And we’ve all heard horror stories about cyber-bullying, easily accessible porn sites, and online sexual predators. Parents can try to put controls on what their children can see and limit their access time. But what if the technology itself turns out to be bad for childhood?
Rhonda Gillespie is an infant and toddler specialist who has worked in early childhood education for decades. When I asked her what she thought about technology and children, she shared her own story:
I have seen a devastating impact on children over the last twenty years. Technology attacks the foundation necessary for healthy development.
When I was a child, our neighborhood was safe and I played outside every day with my friends. We used our creativity and imagination, enhanced our problem solving skills and developed healthy bodies. But by the time my son was growing up, I rarely saw neighborhood children playing outside. The trend had shifted, and the outdoors was perceived to be unsafe.
I had to return to work full time, which meant long days and less evening time to play and enjoy the outdoors with my son. The biggest mistake I made was purchasing him his first video game console. It started off with rules and time limits, but as time progressed, so did the hours at the game controller.
At the beginning, it seemed like a win-win: he was interacting with children from all over the world and could casually socialize with his age group. He became good at some games and his confidence rose. I always thought that at some point he would find friends to play with in the neighborhood. Socialization has always been a challenge for him, and video game companies often bill their products as a bridge to forming connections. Now I feel he was denied the chance to develop healthy interactions.
My son is seventeen years old now. He will text all day long, but when he’s around people, he does not know what to say or how to start a conversation. He says he is comfortable talking to people on the computer because he does not get bullied. But the flip side is that he did not learn to work through those awkward childhood moments that are an opportunity for growth. If he had never had the choice of online “friends,” would he have learned better social skills?
Part of childhood is about problem solving, working out strategies and solutions to everyday life issues. Life became easier with technology, but it also made children unfamiliar with the process of success: hard work and patience. We have created a generation that expects things immediately without effort. For example, when I was in school I would spend months on a research paper, taking many trips to the library, spending hours studying and collecting verified data. My son can now produce the same report in a few hours, on his computer, without the element of verification or proof.
The accessibility of screen devices has caused a significant decline in children’s resilience, self-determination, desire for hard work, and sense of pride in achievement. And socialization among children is becoming extinct.
We know that physical health is affected by screen time – especially eyesight, hearing, and weight. But we also need to consider how it attacks a child’s soul. Many children find themselves unable to communicate with a real person who requires a thoughtful verbal response. More and more young children arrive at preschool with speech difficulties; some do not speak at all. Since this is a diagnosable trait in the autism spectrum, how many children may be categorized as autistic when they have simply not had the opportunity to learn human interaction?
In my conflict resolution work in schools, I sometimes speak with teens who don’t know who they are – what is real about themselves and what is a mask. They have spent their growing years using several different personas or “avatars” in various imaginary worlds, and if they can make these false fronts more glamorous and bold than any mere human can hope to be, we should not be surprised that they come to hate themselves. This leads to desperation, depression, and in all too many cases, suicide.
On many levels, an addiction to video games is as dangerous as drug or alcohol abuse. It can lead children compulsively into ever darker worlds, with no easy way back. It’s no surprise that so many school shootings have been carried out by avid gamers. They seem unable to differentiate between violent games and the consequences of murder in the real world, and incapable of feeling regret for their actions or compassion for their victims. We react with shock to hear about child soldiers commandeered into third-world armies. But it may be harder to see the young militias growing up in our own homes, manipulated just as cruelly as their more distant counterparts.
Now the first generation of gamers has come of parenting age, many without having overcome their addiction. Fathers come home from work only to disappear into a violent fantasy world. Games keep them trapped in adolescence; they spend hours in a parallel universe which absorbs the time that should be spent connecting with a child’s reality – playing catch or reading a bedtime story.
Children need their parents to model life for them and with them – in the real world, not a virtual one. To quote an old Gaelic proverb, “It is not easy to straighten in the oak the crook that grew in the sapling.” Like oak saplings, children need spring breezes, rain, summer sun and a lot of space to grow, not the artificial light of glowing screens.
This article is excerpted from Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World.