Raising children of the Information Age: More Harm than Good?

An act of magic

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I was sitting in a restaurant recently, trying to have a conversation with a friend, while the children at the next table would not stop fighting. Looking rather embarrassed by what was unfolding in front of her, the mother, like a magician, hastily reached into her handbag and whipped out two shiny iPads, handing one to each child. All of a sudden, the two fell silent – eerily so. Almost transfixed, the two of them sat playing games and watching videos. I’m sure everyone today can relate to such an experience.

My friend and I were then able to continue our conversation – which naturally led to discussing whether technology, however much we have embraced it, has a negative impact on children growing up.

The terrifying truth

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According to a recent survey by Nielsen, 41% of parents report using tablet at restaurants and 55% while traveling to keep their children quiet. This figure rises to 70%, if smartphones are included. We only need to look around us – in restaurants, on the road, in a plane or in a crowded waiting room. The new reality is parents too often and too easily give their children a smartphone, an iPad or tablet to alleviate boredom, to appease a cranky child and simply to occupy them – so they can get five minutes of peace and quiet. This exacerbates reliance for ‘tech-dependent parenting’ because parents do taste success from this method – whether a child calms down immediately or temporarily stops fussing, they are easily lured in by this ‘lifesaver’.

I think parents these days are too quick to hand a tech toy or a smartphone to children whenever they are faced with ‘somewhat-uncomfortable’ situations in public. I can empathise with a parent’s struggle to calm a screaming child while still trying to keep whatever dignity (and sanity) they have left in public. As an on-looker, I for one in many occasions have experienced embarrassment and sympathy for the parent. With the crowd’s eyes imminently on them, it can be daunting to pacify a child through conventional distraction methods such as singing in front of strangers.

Technology is a tool for learning, not a babysitter

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It is important for parents to set boundaries in order for children to form a healthy relationship with any technology, to learn appropriate behaviour in public settings and still experience an appropriate level of physical activity. The benefits of technology can be fruitfully used for one-on-one time for learning instead of just a form of entertainment to distract.

It is up to parents’ own self-awareness to ensure that their children are not being subjected to excessive exposure to technology, unnecesarily. For the very same reasons why we love digital media – the immediacy, “Always On”, instantaneous connectivity it brings, the introduction of technology to children at a young age may rush the growing up process. It is evident and without a doubt that children today grow up way too fast.

Despite children now learning twice as fast and more as we did at the same age, I question whether the foundation of this ‘growth’ is founded. Take for instance the accessibility of a calculator. A child must first learn what 2 + 2 is and how to compute 2 + 2, manually, before they should be allowed to punch in the numbers on the machine to do the arithmetic for them.  I dare say technology has groomed children into thinking in a very particular way – that answers come too easily, and without much effort. Operating these devices is so easy, a monkey can do it – and there’s proof of this. The irony with such abundant information technology brings, we risk condemning the next generation to perpetual brain mush.

Look-up

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In order to preserve the precious childhood, it is vital to recognise that it is very much about real-world, hands-on experiences and active play. Technological gadgets can only do so much (besides developing dexterous fingers) –  but how about the rest of the sensory exploration such as touch, and scent that have unparalleled power in forging an understanding of objects, people and places around them?  Think of a child climbing a tree. Her whole body, mind and sense are working in unison. Her progress is helped by split-second, largely subconscious feedback loops that integrate information from her feet, fingers, arms, legs, eyes and ears. Her decisions are shaped by complex, highly sensitive balance of kinaesthetic systems. It is a richer experience to walk outside and observe the animals, the shapes of things, the behaviours of creatures, to try to figure out why buildings are how they are, notice people, feel things – wind, surfaces, weights.

Today, a child does not need to visit a farm to learn that cows go ‘moo’ and pigs go ‘oink’. There is a farm animal app for that. And an app just about everything and anything. By introducing technology so early in a child’s life, we are essentially robbing them of their childhood – the time they need to mature and learn critical lessons, relationship dynamics and life skills. We may hate to admit it, but there is no screen-time replacement for taking two blocks and learning how to stack them.

Cultivate natural curiosity

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What most people find appealing about children is their playfulness – the innocence which seems to lack in adulthood. Children are naturally curious, often asking ‘why’. By introducing technology so early, we are discouraging children to think for themselves. I predict that they will grow up with an expectation that a lot can be done for them without much effort. They should be using their brains and books, not calculators and Google. We had the time to reflect and contrast with our own childhoods, but for these children being brought up with technology – this is all they know, no better. We are creating future generations where common sense is no longer common.

With technology, the child is in control and makes things happen or can get immediate responses. The moment a child is more astonished with a picture of a bird than a bird itself, we have unintentionally moulded children to be more astonished with their own creations than the creation that they are a part of. As adults we must protect the active imaginative mind and nurture this natural curiosity and discovery process. The world of the curious is colourful, fragrant, and tactile – a time when there is always a quest, or at least unanswered questions. Children who achieve anything have to be curious about how things work, how they might be changed, and made better, eliminated or created. It is the unanswered question that is pure potential.

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I think children should be children for longer. Technology inadvertently creates an overstimulation in children. It is not before long that many children will become boring or easily bored. Although many articles and findings out there support the use of technology in children development, the effects in the long term may not be as visible or clear. As adults we must remember, it is impossible to accelerate emotional maturation. Children may act grown up, but they don’t feel grown up. They may speak “adult” while their feelings are crying “child.” Childhood is a significant part of life (boy do I remember mine, filled with fond memories), and it should be respected and valued. Children are entitled to their childhood, and we shouldn’t hurry them through this stage.

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