Back in June 2012, I attended a lecture by an anthropologist who studies youth culture. It was about what he calls today’s ‘screen culture’, the younger generation’s addiction to technology: cellular phones and smartphones, computers and tablets, television, game consoles, etc. and the content that keeps them riveted to these devices. It was meant to alert parents to the dangers involved and suggest remedies.
Here are a few points I found worth noting. This mainly concerns children aged about 8-18, and reflects the speaker’s observations only (even if I do share many of his concerns).
The Dangers of Technology Addiction for Kids
Most parents sense that having their children glued to various screens for hours on end can’t be good in general. Many are aware that the internet specifically is also a happy hunting ground for predators and crazy-idea mongers. However, there are other, deeper effects.
Screens dull the senses.
Spending hours on end with computers and phones teaches loneliness, an inability to communicate with real people in real-world situations. Sadly, this is not the positive kind of loneliness, the one that people retreat into for tranquility, recharging batteries, etc. This is loneliness that youngsters don’t know how to cope with. To learn the former, children should be allowed to have some alone time without any distracting devices (with parents keeping an eye on them from afar, to provide support if necessary).
Text messaging, a major communication channel among kids and teenagers, provides a fragmented view of things. The connection is not real. Information comes in bite-size units, failing to convey much of the feelings or thoughts behind it. You don’t see or hear your correspondent, and so you don’t learn to pick up on the tones and body language that normally lend additional meaning to a conversation. This induces flawed communication abilities and detachment from reality.
For some children, this void is ‘filled’ by soap operas or telenovelas (others watch them for other reasons). Kids who watch these come to learn that life is all about conniving and back-stabbing, saying one thing and meaning another. They will carry this kind of thinking over to their social interactions. They will grow to be distrustful of others, believing and suspecting that they (others) always have a hidden agenda masked behind their words.
One quantifiable measure of communication skills is the ability to synchronize speech, i.e. change your volume or tone of speech to match that of the person you are talking to. A 60% loss in this ability has been observed in children who spend a lot of time alone in front of screens.
The lecturer said he was already seeing the effects in some 30 year old males. They might display external signs of success—as, say, bright engineers with a handsome salary—but they have no idea how to deal with intimacy, what to say or do in the presence of their wife or girlfriend.
Solutions to Technology Addictions
The lecturer was adamant that children should not have a PC in their room before they are 18. Any existing computer in a child’s room should be removed immediately, cold turkey, leaving only one computer available for all children in the house to use in a ‘public’ space (like the living room). Many kids who have had this done to them by their parents ended up thanking them after the initial shock and anger had turned into a realization that their time could be better spent doing other things than loitering around the computer.
Parents (and teachers at times) need to work together and in concert in order to be effective. For example, if parents of children in a given class want to wean them off Facebook, they need to do this all at once. This way, the next day at school, the children realize two things:
1) Things are not as bad as they thought: If all of them are off Facebook, they would have very few friends to communicate with anyhow.
2) Their parents are in control, a united front, a force to reckon with.
Television offers parents an opportunity to come between their children and the screen and make a difference. When children watch television shows for adults (reality shows, soap operas, etc.), it is a good idea to watch some episodes with them and moderate/comment what they see. In Survivor, for example, parents would do well to point out that cheating and lying your way to victory does not make you a hero.
In front of the television set, it’s not always about what you say, but about how you react as parents. For example, when watching a football game with your boy, you might be tempted to ‘bless’ the referee and his mother for making a fatal ‘bad’ call against your team. If you can hold your horses, and your child sees you contain your anger, you will have taught him a lesson in restraint. This might even go as far as keeping him safe or alive on a night out later in life by avoiding the provocations of bullies looking to fight.
It is up to parents to teach lead by example: Many, if not most, grown-ups are themselves heavy technology addicts. This by itself sets a bad example. You’re setting an even worse example if you answer your mobile (to take calls that can wait), read messages or the like in the middle of a conversation or activity with your child. When you’re with your child, give them your total, unadulterated attention, so that they learn to treat others with like respect and attention.
In today’s busy world, and with their own obsession with devices, parents spend less time with their kids. An obvious solution for reducing both theirs and their children’s screen time is to provide alternatives.
As a general rule, it is important for families to create rituals. An important one is the family dinner. It allows parents, among other things, to bond with their children, follow their progress, and note what they are going through. The family dinner should be kept a media-free zone. It should be all about food and listening.