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The Digital Childhood

In recent times the growing widespread use of digital technology has found itself at the centre of everyday life, particularly for younger generations. With the continuing popularity of tablets, smartphones and laptops among children, we now have a whole new generation growing up in a world of digital entertainment, who are often indifferent to the traditional activities which occupied the childhoods of older generations. A game of football might still be popular, but climbing trees and riding bikes look to be on a decline – even more so with traditional non-digital games like Monopoly, Cluedo or card games such as Snap.

Nowadays even gathering around the TV with the family might seem like a rare luxury for parents finding themselves in houses that seem to grow increasingly empty as the children withdraw into their own digital worlds.  One study shows that 73 per cent of parents remember regularly playing board games as children, which is compared to only 44 per cent of children now. And the popularity of chess has more than halved amongst the younger generations. These games “taught important life skills, such as communication, mental dexterity, logical reasoning and social interaction”, according to Dr Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist who has studied these growing trends. Such activities required a mental engagement that many of these modern digital-based entertainments do not. Alongside this is the loss of another important aspect of these traditional games: how they brought households together, gathered around a game of Monopoly in important bonding sessions that are being replaced with more isolated activities.

Some research suggests that as more and more children spend their times on their tablets, phones and laptops, they become less adept at managing the physical tasks that previous generations had been widely capable of handling at that same age while other research has linked consistent usage of digital technology to loneliness, anxiety and depression amongst children and adults alike.

But in the digital age, allowing children to access and become accustomed to the technology that will play a large role in their everyday lives, doesn’t seem like a necessarily bad move and there are even unexpected benefits as many parents would recognise in the power an iPad has to pacify a restless child; but while many might be keen on using a smartphone or iPad to pacify their toddler when they’re acting up, some opinions in the scientific community argue that too much of this will impede their child’s ability for self-regulation and social-emotional development, and while the effects of television on young children growing up are already well-known and understood, there are still new and unforeseen consequences being revealed through ongoing research on digital technology.

But what are the benefits in store for this younger, more plugged-in generation? And how much of the criticism levied against it is fair and accurate? After all, if you go far back in time enough, you’ll find widespread condemnation of the time spent by children reading books. Now parents, educational bodies and politicians are complaining that they don’t spend enough time reading. New generations grow up in new ways, and there will always be uncertainties and doubts about the changes made to childhood lives that seem so markedly different from previous times.

Jordy Kaufman, director of the BabyLab at Swinborne University in Melbourne, Australia argues that criticism levelled at ‘screen-time’ with digital technology fails to take into account the wide variety of apps present in tablets and smartphones which children can interact with; all with varying functions and effects including games that engage and stimulate mental activity in similar ways to chess and Checkers. For reasons such as this, he argues that a lot of the same assumptions from research on how television can effect children is being incorrectly applied to digital screen-time.

Children are now being born into a time when digital technology is everywhere and there are many positive benefits gained from access to some of this technology, as long as it is not excessive and at the neglect of tried and tested methods of entertainment, such as reading, board games and outdoors activities. It seems a more well-rounded childhood that would regularly incorporate non-digital sources of entertainment would bring the most benefit for the younger generations.

October 26, 2016
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