Is technology the enemy of an outdoor childhood?

iPhone banTechnology has an ever greater role in children’s lives, and its effects are the focus of ever more heated debate. It is easy for advocates of nature, outdoor play and everyday childhood freedoms to think that screens and gadgets are our enemy. But the truth is that things are a little more complicated than that.

Let’s start with some context, and some observations about how children engage with the world around them. Right from birth and throughout childhood, children are naturally curious, and have an appetite for experience and adventure. Not for nothing is the adjective ‘boring’ one of the most potent in a child’s vocabulary.

The young of our species are nature’s most efficient learning machines. And children have evolved to make sense of the world multi-modally. Real-world, hands-on experiences – those that involve all their sensory modalities simultaneously – have unparalleled power in forging an understanding of the objects, people and places around them.

Think of a child climbing a tree.

Child climbing a treeHer whole body, mind and senses are working in unison. Her progress is helped by split-second, largely subconscious feedback loops that integrate information from the feet, fingers, arms, legs, eyes, and ears. Her decisions and actions are shaped by complex, highly sensitive balance and kinaesthetic systems.

Children who are stuck indoors in front of screens miss out on the power of these multi-modal experiences. They suffer from a hugely limited user interface (compare the two-thumbs-and-one-eye that are needed to use a games console with all the senses, muscles and brain-body systems that are deployed to climb a tree). Moreover, in real terms, the bandwidth of technological interfaces is tiny (do not be confused by talk of gigabytes and megahertz). Yes, scientists are building machines that can get around some simplified real-world environments like rooms or offices. But the amount of data that would be needed to navigate the world the way a child does is many orders of magnitude higher. I am not saying we will never see robots climbing trees. But do not hold your breath.

It is helpful to use a diet analogy when thinking about childhood experiences. For most children, what matters is not to abstain from different types of experience altogether, but to have a broad, balanced diet. We have a reasonable idea of the consequences of a highly restricted, largely digital and screen-based diet. This recent authoritative report from Public Health England [pdf link] summarises the consequences for children’s well-being of excessive screen time, drawing on a literature review and on studies that track the lives of thousands of children. Here is what it says, more-or-less in full:

Time spent playing computer games was significantly and negatively associated with young people’s wellbeing. Television viewing has been associated with teachers’ and parents’ reports of children’s attention difficulties, and with children self- reporting attention problems.

Long-term research suggests TV viewing at younger ages (one to three years old) predicts later attention and hyperactivity difficulties (among seven-year olds) taking into account baseline level of difficulties.

Increased screen time and exposure to media (such as bedroom TVs) is consistently associated with reduced feelings of social acceptance, and increased feelings of loneliness, conduct problems and aggression.

Increased TV viewing is associated with lower self-worth and self-esteem and lower levels of self-reported happiness. The odds of children not worrying were highest in those who watched less than an hour on weekdays. Parents were also more likely to regard their child as unhappy if they watched a very large amount of TV.

Specific types of internet activity (social networking sites, multi-player online games) have been associated with lower levels of wellbeing among children. Children who spend more time on computers, watching TV and playing video games tend to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression. This relationship is particularly negative among those who engage in high levels of screen use (more than four hours a day).

The evidence suggests a ‘dose-response’ relationship, where each additional hour of viewing increases children’s likelihood of experiencing socio-emotional problems and the risk of lower self-esteem.

We can debate the details of this evidence. Some of the more alarming studies are based on children in the US, not the UK, and even the UK longitudinal data does not prove cause and effect. But it is hard to argue with the overall picture: that we should be very concerned about the consequences of a diet of experience that is largely mediated by screens. (And note that this report just looked at well-being, not physical activity.) What is more, as Prof Sonia Livingstone – one of the worlds’ leading researchers on children’s digital lives – argues, the bulk of the evidence suggests that the biggest threat from a heavily technology-mediated childhood is not from the digital content itself, but from the opportunity costs: the real-world experiences that such children are missing out on, because they are spending so much time in front of screens.

Given this evidence, it might seem crystal clear that technology is the problem. But that is the wrong conclusion. Children’s growing immersion in technology is as much a symptom as a cause of their disconnect from the outdoors and the real world. The fact is that children are increasingly being reared in captivity. Society does not make it easy for them to satisfy their appetite for experience – to explore and discover what lies beyond their front doors. Across the developed world, the horizons of childhood have been shrinking for decades, for all sorts of reasons. Given children’s hunger for experience – and especially for stimulation, challenge, and social contact with friends and peers – relying on technology to feed this hunger is an understandable response.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that children themselves are clear about the role of technology in their lives. Given the choice, most would prefer to engage with the world around them first-hand, not through a screen.

One thing is for sure: our lives, and our children’s lives, are going to become ever more mediated by our use of technology. We cannot turn the cultural clock back to a time before smartphones, consoles, and tablets. And it is wrong to think that these technologies have nothing to offer. For instance, the website Mission:Explore offers hundreds of ideas for engaging real-world adventures – such as “Explore a local stream, river or lake looking for trash and animals. How many birds, mammals, fish and reptiles do you find for every piece of human waste?” And many children and young people themselves use technology in creative, exploratory ways. My teenage daughter has introduced me to the online world of fan fiction websites, where budding writers (including a large proportion of young people) use fictional characters like Dr Who and Sherlock Holmes as the springboard for their own attempts at creative writing.

To come back to my diet analogy, if children are consuming too much technology, it is because as a society, we are not doing enough to make healthier alternatives available. If we are to turn this around, we need to overcome the barriers that constrain children’s horizons. These barriers are many and varied, and I have written extensively about some of them here. They include excessive traffic-dominated streets, run-down parks and green spaces, excessive risk aversion, a narrow, impoverished view of learning, sophisticated marketing, and unwelcoming and hostile attitudes to the very presence of children out of doors.

I am not saying that parents have no role to play, or that some should not be doing more to get their children away from screens and out of doors. But simply telling children to use screens less, or telling parents to limit their kids’ screen time, without tackling these wider obstacles is a recipe for family conflict and frustration. It also dumps the whole problem entirely onto parents. This lets off the hook everyone else whose actions make it harder for parents to give their children more everyday freedoms: from grumpy neighbours to planners, educators, politicians, corporations, and the media.

Screen-mediated lives are a reflection of children’s loss of contact with the wider world. But technology is as much a symptom as a cause, and it is not the enemy.

What we most urgently need is not more lecturing. It is sustained, collective action across society to tackle the barriers that keep too many children in thrall to technology. Only then will they be able to explore the awe and wonder of the world around them, through all their senses and in full high definition 3-D.

This is an edited version of a talk I gave last Friday at the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London, at a debate entitled ‘What Has Technology Ever Done for Nature?’

16 responses to “Is technology the enemy of an outdoor childhood?

  1. Wow, thanks Tim. Alarming and inspiring!

    We just got Netflix which runs one cartoon straight into the next and means you have to really actively jump in to stop it. I shall be cancelling the subscription….

  2. Thanks Tim, I think you know I agree with much of what you say, balance has been my watch word for quite while – and we can’t uninvent things (though we can ask for more ethical and better designed things). I was asked by Mattel in 2000 as they were getting out of Hot Wheels and into computers what they could do, I said a background monitor that suggested going outside to play after a few games on the screen.
    Two scary statements in your blog – ‘my teenaged daughter’ (!), and ‘Given the choice, most would prefer to engage with the world around them first-hand, not through a screen’ – I know the Play Eng stats but is this still true for most kids and most ages? Is there not a large minority wanting warmth and electronic stimulation? And Jane McGonigal tells us Reality is Broken; she says we need to play online more to solve the world’s problems. We do need sustained, collective action across society but where’s the vision, the leaders and the agency? Project Wild Thing shows that taking on big ideas means big resources or local action, and the families that need support are hurting.

  3. Elspeth denchfield

    This is so true. I have read several of Sue Palmers books which say similar and also see how Sugata Mitra’s experiments with giving technology to young people can really enhance their experiences. Sue suggests an ‘adult alliance’ in local communities whereby we learn to trust each other again and allow other adults to direct our children when they are behaving too dangerously or anti socially while out playing (in the ‘playing out campaign’ style). It will take a mammoth effort for us; parents, educators and people who care about children and young people and about the future of humanity in general, to turn around the huge engine of commercial, political and media influences on our culture. Those influences are so powerful. But it really must be done. The Flourish summit was a good start! all that wonderful knowledge, information and passion needs to be shared and handed on to every school in the country to then spread to every parent. It needs to be a revolution from the bottom up, I think, and I laugh at myself as I write that because I am far from being a radical or a revolutionary. Goodness I have clearly found something I feel quite passionate about! So thank you Tim, as always, for your wonderful balanced arguments and thoughtfulness.

  4. Should have titled article, “The fact is that children are increasingly being reared in captivity”. Schools should rethink the use of the outdoors in daily learning as well as the use of technology.

  5. We will help you get the word out to this side of the Pond and repost this on Monday on the Play and Playground News Center at http://www.pgpnewscenter.com.

  6. Thanks for an interesting post Tim, which resulted in my writing this http://creativestarlearning.co.uk/interesting-issues-hot-topics/are-we-digital-natives-from-a-different-era/

    I’ve gone off on a slightly different tangent… and perhaps too belligerently… Oops!

  7. Thanks for all the comments so far. Perry – nice to see you here. Yes, the fact that my daughter is teenage(d) is sometimes a shock to me too! My claim about children’s views on technology is partly based on this 2011 study which looked at the views of children aged 5 – 11 (yes, it’s market research, but I was involved in it and think it stands up). But I suspect it’s the kind of issue where children of different ages have different views, and it also depends how you ask the questions. Elspeth – Sue and I have shared views on many topics, but – having discussed this with her – I think she is more concerned about the direct impact of technology (as opposed to the ‘opportunity costs’) than me. I agree that action and – crucially, as Perry notes – leadership are needed. Juliet – thanks for posting the link to your blog post – very interesting, I will make an effort to respond.

  8. Perfect timing Tim!

    This weekend sees the launch of the David Bond’s film Project Wild Thing at a range of progressive cinemas around the country. Anyone, like me, who agrees with what you have said here will really want to see the film which, in turn, will launch them and their children into what has become a national campaign to reengage the young, and the not so young, with nature. There is a 2 minute clip of the film on

    http://projectwildthing.com/film

    Project Wild Thing began when the National Trust (NT) joined minds with Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods). Now it goes way beyond NT with hundreds of nature organisations collaborating in The Wild Network: organisations from the big players such as RSPB to the smallest local groups of enthusiasts, and across the public, voluntary and commercial sectors.
    Project Wild Thing and Britain on Foot, a similar ‘viral’ campaign, will hopefully get lots of exposure and get lots of children, young people, and older people too into lots of new natural adventures. Spread the word.

    Thanks Tim for your timely intervention!

    Marcus

  9. Hi Tim, thanks for the post.I enjoyed your solutions-based call to ‘no more lecturing’ about this perceived problem and your urge to transcend to ‘tackle the barriers’. Problem is, the barriers listed are are massive societal issues and tackling them is incredibly unrealistic for an individual…a thin way to advocate change.

    School districts embracing the ‘maker movement’ is a example to currently flip students “loss of contact with the wider world” while using technology. This has no direct link with students connection with the natural world; however, it turns technology immediately into a crafting tradition. Kids learning by doing, not clicking.

    Whatever it takes for them to feel fully alive.

    Paul Kelba

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