It’s pretty obvious that technology evolves, rather than going backwards. For this reason, it’s likely a bad idea to look at it as an enemy that should be defeated. Digital products are a worldwide phenomenon; they won’t disappear, and cannot be hidden from your son or daughter. So we must be realistic when tackling the related issues.
First, it was television – the so-called “electronic babysitter.” For a long time, controversy in regards to the relationship between children and media & technology centered around this. It is true, for instance, that having meals in front of the TV is not recommended, because people tend to eat without paying attention to the food, and thus eat too much. Research has proven the connection between childhood obesity and hours spent in front of a TV set.
While the controversy around watching too much TV is still a thing, other technologies appeared and became the new hot topic.
Though no longer brand new now, digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, video games, and computers still raise doubts about what role tech should play in the lives of children, teenagers and, to a lesser extent, of adults. A major concern is that children are spending more time inactive inside their homes, their rooms, their seats. In other words, by spending a lot of time with digital devices, children gradually become less active and disconnected from the natural world.
Jane Clark, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, coined the term “containerized kids” to refer to the trend of not only raising children indoors, but also confining them to car seats, strollers and high chairs when they are outside. Though many of these items serve their own purpose, and might be necessary for safety reasons, they can still negatively impact the health of children by restricting movement, leading to a sedentary lifestyle.
Does all this mean that children should be kept away from screens by any means necessary? What’s the best way to deal with them? If there was an easy answer for that, people would not have been debating it for so long.
Technology brings new problems and new solutions. Deciding how to deal with it is a matter of personal judgment.
But different approaches can, at least partially, provide parents with some good ideas, when it comes to channeling technology positively in raising their children.
1. Using technology as a tool for children’s professional development
Today’s children need to be digitally literate. Information and communications technology (ICT) is becoming increasingly important for education and the workplace, and those who do not have these skills are often left behind. Many researchers are dedicated to this topic, and worried about the gap between people who lack the opportunity to develop such skills and those who don’t. So developing the best strategy to connect children and the digital sphere requires keeping track of this information, too.
2. Making education and life lessons more attractive via digital media
The constant evolution of media means new possibilities day after day. “Serious games” is one positive example. Such games address specific content and / or abilities that are more connected to formal education and social competences. They are designed to teach about energy, notions of sustainability, and topics ranging from economics, to language, to empathy.
Come to think of it, even commercial games with entertainment as the main goal can teach children to read maps, strategize, work in groups, learn a language, and more.
Now think of YouTube. Online videos are not only about cats or fake pranks. There is a lot of content about science, experiments and other topics oriented to “edutainment” (education and entertainment). My own research shows that when exposed to online content about sustainability, kids between 8 and 9 years old were more excited to deepen their knowledge about nature, and even to go out and be in direct contact with it.
The point is: When family and teachers actively search, they are bound to find something adequate and interesting for the particular ages, preferences and needs of the children.
3. Highlighting nature and sports with digital devices and games
Using technology does not always have to mean being sedentary or indoors. There are countless possible combinations to be explored.
A smartphone can be used by children in nature to photograph the natural elements they liked the most. Many schools in Brazil, where I come from, have projects in this integrative direction.
Devices can also be used to film the performance of a child playing sports or games that require them to be physically active, or to make a creative / artistic presentation in front of the camera. And if you need one more example, think about all those video games that are about dancing by following the choreography on the screen.
Promoting and finding a balance between physical movement and screens is a good plan. Change then becomes a matter of creating limits for the children, and making sure the rule is followed, rather than trying to forbid digital play altogether.
Of primary importance to your personal solution is having a strategic and solid background. So keep one eye on the market (ICT skills, the evolution of technologies, products) and the other on your own needs as a parent, caregiver and / or educator – because both will change over and over again.
With input, children are open to trying something new: new ways to use the phone, new games to play, new places to try out their tablets, etc. Even more important than the technology, are the ways the devices are used.
Part II of series: “A fresh gaze”
This series is an invitation to take a fresh look at topics we already know. This might mean we’ll leave beliefs behind, stop romanticizing some concepts, or just keep up with new data. One way or another, the idea is to exercise approaches that can allow us to make better choices.
Manoella Oliveira is a Brazilian journalist who holds a Master’s degree in Media and Communication Science, with a post-grad in Environmental Management.