SUS-WOO KIDS: Children of a Wireless World

A Broken Green Cord

Part 1 of 2

By Michael Caduto

One of the greatest challenges for parents during the pandemic has been to strike a balance between the time required to increase children’s exposure to electronic media in order to facilitate learning, and the time available for children to spend away from the virtual world. Since children have different levels of proficiency when interacting with virtuality, and varied degrees of tolerance for the amount of time taken away from the physical world, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

The difference between helping a child to experience nature through an electronic device (l) versus during an encounter in the real world (r) is as profound as the difference between offering visual information versus a first-hand experience that elicits wonder and delight. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.

But the struggle to manage children’s time devoted electronic devices had already been well underway leading into the pandemic, and a look at the larger picture can help to inform what children, families and schools are now experiencing. Just a generation ago, no one could have foreseen a time when there would come to be a crisis of disconnect between children and their natural surroundings. Children who had access to the outdoors spent most of their time swimming in ponds, catching turtles and inventing imaginary worlds where trolls and fairies cavorted among frogs and dragonflies.

In his influential book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv notes a University of Maryland study which found that, in 2013, half as many children in the United States of ages 9-12 were spending time engaged in outdoor activities (swimming, fishing, hiking, gardening, going to the beach) than was the case just six years earlier. This trend, which has been borne out by similar studies, is happening all around the world in both urban and rural settings. This is the root of what Louv terms the “nature deficit” that has become endemic to children’s experiences in modern society. 

Nowadays, due to concerns over safety, tightly structured schedules and a strong focus on academic achievement from a very early age (now reaching into the pre-K years), children have very little open, unstructured outdoor time to themselves, and far less control over the own free time. Is it any wonder that they turn, from an early age, to spending time on computers, cell phones, iPods, tablets and myriad other electronic devices? 

From Europe to the Middle East, and from North America to Asia, research has proven that children are more connected to the content of their apps than they are to their surroundings. Whereas parents of earlier generations were eager to send their children outdoors—were glad to have them “out of their hair” and perfectly happy to “leave them to our own devices”—we now have a generation of parents worried about the amount of time children spend with their electronic devices, and the accompanying health ramifications. 

Not only do electronic devices separate children from nature, their overuse has serious negative health impacts:

  • Children who use cell phones are less aware of their surroundings and are three times as likely to be seriously injured or even killed in a traffic accident while walking to school.
  • Overexposure to devices in children during their first two years, when their brains triple in size, can lead to ADHD, impaired learning and delayed cognitive development.
  • The frequent use of devices increases the incidence of early onset myopia among children, requiring corrective glasses.
  • Children who frequently use devices can become impulsive, less disciplined and prone to tantrums.
  • Excessive use of devices leads to obesity, diabetes and associated cardio-vascular problems later in life.
  • Children who are allowed to have a device in their bedroom run a 30% greater risk of obesity. They are prone to experiencing sleeplessness and decreased academic performance.
  • Excessive use of devices can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, dipolar disorder and other forms of psychological malaise.
  • Device use encourages aggressive behavior in children.
  • Device use is addictive and is accompanied by the side effects of addiction.
  • According to the World Health Organization, microwave radiation emitted by cell phones, tablets, laptops and other devices is a possible cause of cancer. This risk is heightened in small children.

A Common Sense Media study found that 17% of children who are 8 and younger use electronic devices every day; this number has more than doubled since 2011. Research conducted prior to the pandemic by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that children were using some form of electronic media for seven hours each day, on average. That adds up to 2,555 hours per year, which is equivalent to 3 1/2 months of 24-hour days each year spent using devices. Over 10 years of childhood, this amounts to an astounding 3 years of time, 24/7, connected by devices to the virtual world. 

(Part 2 of this article will explore ideas, actions and resources for reconnecting children to nature and the outdoors.)


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