Earlier this week, John Gibson, chair of the Independent Schools Association, told its annual conference that many children are growing up in “prison-like environments” because they are surrounded by technology and don’t play outdoors enough. (See the BBC story here.)
Even though I’m an advocate of media literacy and the role of digital media in education, I agree with Gibson and recognise, as with anything, that there are appropriate levels of usage for anything, and too much time at a computer or tv screen doing anything is not good for you, educational or not. I’m from the ‘Why Don’t You?” generation and remember with fond memories the lines “Why Don’t You Just Switch Off The Television Set And Go Do Something Less Boring Instead?”.
I don’t let my own children stay on the computer for more than about 20 minutes at a time, (“do as I say, not as a I do kids!!”), so absolutely, get out there, get muddy, get climbing trees, and get making dens in the bushes. The problem with today’s environment though, is that parents are also scared that their children are going to get kidnapped, or whatever else horrific situations our imaginations can conjure. So now not only are screens the electronic babysitters (nurture), they are also the new nature.
Want to go bowling kids? Let’s plug in the Wii. Want to paint a picture? Go to the Cbeebies website and use their painting programmes and so you don’t get the carpet messy. Want to own, love and nurture a pet of your own? Tamagochi’s are now half price in Toyz R Us! And most of all children, do you want to meet up with your friends and chat about girls & boys & play games & just be the children that you are, then why not log onto Facebook, or one of the thousands of children’s social network sites that are child safe and protected from ‘stranger danger’? (Judging from some of the things I’ve seen on the internet, I’d rather my children being out there in the ‘real world’ thank you very much.)
A highly contradictory part of me wept every time I saw my 8 year old daughter play on her Nintendo DS since we bought it for her, as she used to spend a lot of her time doing arts & crafts activities, and now she had her nose stuck in the mini computer playing Brain Gym, figuring out timetables and anagrams and lateral thinking puzzles. Highly contradictory, as of course I was pleased she was using her brain, and also relieved she was using a very expensive present, but I was now concerned about her eyes. As parents, we need to have something to worry about, as the alternative is just too frightening to comprehend.
But that’s just the point actually, parents are also scared of the evils of the internet, so, if we believed the hype about deranged adults lurking around every physical and virtual corner, then our children would be house bound sitting on their hands. But that is purely theoretical, as I would like to hope that humans are more sensible than that (I trust). We know that all things need moderation. If a child is indeed living in a web prison, then yes they need to get out more. If they are out all of the time, then maybe they should also come in once in a while and, I don’t know, read a book perhaps. But the idealised nature of the traditional family are perhaps long gone. Watching Saturday evening television together as a nuclear family used to be the ideal demographic for programmes between 6.30 – 9pm on BBC1 and ITV regions, but now you get a situation where Britain’s Got Talent gets more people watching short clips on Youtube than anyone would ever sit down to watch the whole programme on tv. The reality is that young people’s lives are busy, just like the media they consume. A video clip, a twitter, an instant message, a text, and photo, and video call, a poke (on facebook for those who don’t know!!) At least they’re not out having sex and doing drugs, eh?
We might never know how these new technologies are affecting young people’s brains and they way they think and process information. Some say it has depleted their attention spans, and others say it has improved it. Nothing was ever as good as in “our day”, the *80s/70s/60s/50s/40s (delete as applicable).
I’m sure it’s a rare teenager that only sits on a computer and never reads a single sentence on the internet, never has to figure out a query/puzzle of some kind of Facebook game or quiz, never has to count how long it will take to download the 673mb dodgy movie before their mum comes home from work in 38 minutes. (That is a complex transferable and mathematical skill!!) Also, what teenager doesn’t hate their parents so much that they just have to get out of the house and trawl the shopping malls and hang out in the park until one minute past their curfew, or getting their ears screamed at by sirens only they can hear to move them along? Young people are damned if they leave the house, and damned if they stay indoors.
I’m making light of all this slightly as, if we don’t, we start to believe the hype, and our children would grow to be as neurotic as we are. So yes, let’s listen to what John Gibson has to say as it is important, but let’s also embrace the positive things in these new technologies as well, and most of all, with guidance and clearly setting the boundaries, trust that we have brought up our children to be sensible individuals. Unless we put a microchip in their brains and cameras in their eyes, we can’t be with them everywhere they go in life.
Hmmmmm….now there’s a thought!