Tech is killing childhood

Time spent on gadgets could be hampering kids' ability to connect to each other and the "real" world

Published August 12, 2013 11:30PM (EDT)

     (<a href=''>ollyy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(ollyy via Shutterstock)

Excerpted with permission from "The Big Disconnect"

When to Push Pause, Delete, and Play: Ages Six to Ten

Kids are so obsessed with sitting inside and playing with their iPod Touch and it’s so useless. I watch my cousin, who’s six, and she sits on the couch and plays Scooby Doo with her friends on the iPad, and I’m like, jeez, when I was six years old I was figuring out how to tie teddy bears to gate posts or flinging them over the banisters. I just think of all the fun things my sisters and I would do, all these fun memories that I have and my cousins won’t because they are sitting on the couch and video-chatting. My cousins aren’t having any childhood.

Trevor was on spring break, enjoying all the things a ten-year-old boy does, when he checked his e-mail and found an odd one waiting for him. It was from nurfmadnessXYZ.

“I just thought it was random—you know, spam—or a joke,” he says. “I didn’t tell anybody. I just deleted it right away.”

About a month went by and he had forgotten all about it, when two more e-mails popped up one day from the same address. This time nurfmadnessXYZ made sexually explicit taunts about his genitalia along with calling him “a fucking asshole.”

“That’s when I started to believe that someone was trying to make me feel as bad as they could,” Trevor says. “I got really freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I mean, the first time I didn’t respond because I thought it was random and that was what everybody said to do. But now it was persistent. I started pacing my room trying to think of what to do. For about five minutes I was just trying to pull myself together, and then I thought I should really tell my parents.”

His parents shared the e-mails with the school principal. They tapped the student grapevine and within a week found nurfmadnessXYZ, a ten-year-old girl who had been nursing a grudge against Trevor for more than a year since he had openly ridiculed her loose grammar on the bus a few times. She had talked to friends about “horrible things to do to him,” her friends reported later, but none of them ever thought she would do anything. What she did do eventually was sign on to a friend’s e-mail account to send the sexually harassing e-mails.

“When I found out I sort of broke down, like in a movie when the main character just breaks down and everything is in slow motion, that’s what it felt like to me,” Trevor tells me the day he comes with his mother for our first session. He is struggling with anger and depression.

It has been a year since that last e-mail and the whodunit disclosure that followed, which became the subject of hushed conversations among students and the school community. Secrets are hard to keep at school and in an online universe. The girl was suspended for several days and when she returned she was told to steer clear of Trevor. But her clique of friends rallied around her and school for her is fundamentally unaltered. Trevor, on the other hand, continues to suffer. He has been alternately angry, uneasy, and unfocused at school since it happened. His good grades have dropped; he used to love going to school, now he hates it. Every time he checks his e-mail, he looks first for the name he doesn’t want to see there with a haunting sense of ick. For Trevor, that the girl keeps her distance at school doesn’t change the fact that for all he knows, the nasty conversation about him may continue forever in cyberspace. Sexual harassment via e-mail would be disturbing to most adults. It is nothing Trevor or his parents were prepared for in the life of a ten-year-old child.

In an elementary school a few thousand miles away, the bright side of tech and its interface with young schoolchildren offers a more reassuring view of schoolchildren and screens. Two dozen second-graders are gathered for story time. They’ve scooted their chairs into strategic position with all eyes on the wall-mounted whiteboard as their teacher, Ms. Davis, prepares to read a story aloud. Her calm, welcoming demeanor and thoughtful responses to each child are very much in the Mr. Rogers tradition.

The students are always offered a choice of the old-fashioned cozy corner or the whiteboard setting for story time; they often choose the screen. They clearly love both, however, and at free time they swarm the shelves for their favorite books just as generations before them did. Unlike most of their parents at this age, they each have a personal online library account on which they keep track of the books they have checked out and the due dates; they also use it to access online resources. Later in the day, fourth-graders take these seats for a lesson in finding and citing research sources. After a brief discussion of online how-to, including the meaning of copyright and how to avoid plagiarism, they move to the nearby bank of computers and log on to continue their work for an assignment in progress.

As at most schools that have a strong media and tech curriculum, the program promotes reading and literature, research skills, and smart, responsible use of tech by students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Over the course of their elementary school education, they will learn how to use computers, the Internet, and aspects of social media (blogging, for instance) for schoolwork and everyday purposes. They’ll be taught what it means to be good digital citizens and they’ll review standards of behavior to make sure that their tech world is a safe and civil place for them and their friends.

Many of them are already familiar with tech from recreational use at home. Few have discussed digital citizenship and netiquette with their parents.

In the calm, structured space of the media center and the measured pace of its developmentally based curriculum, children’s interaction with tech provides an optimal orientation at every grade level. But as Trevor’s experience and those of so many children show, beyond the carefully managed environment that schools take pains to provide, the old information highway has become a fast lane into broadening communities of peers and, inevitably, the vast online world. At times, they find themselves in difficult situations that weren’t previously part of life for children in grade school—and many that shouldn’t be. Inexperience is a problem. So is childish thinking and the ordinary recklessness that goes with it. Parents feel hard-pressed to get up to speed in new ways as gatekeepers, screen monitors, tech support, and cyberlife referees, in addition to the just plain human side of parenting.

Traditionally and by nature, so much of child development at this age is driven by children’s desire to connect with each other and the exciting world beyond; to fit in, stand out, look older, smarter, cooler. If the computer has become the new playground for our children, then we must ask what they are playing, who they are meeting there, and what they are learning. It is certainly a faster crowd online than ever graced a neighborhood playground. For all the good they can find there, other influences, from screen games and commercial pop-ups to YouTube, social media, and online erotica, introduce them to images and information they are not developmentally equipped to understand. The combination of their innate eagerness to mimic what’s cool, and the R- to X-rated quality of the cool they see, has collapsed childhood to the point that we see second-graders mimicking sexy teens and fourth-graders hanging out with online “friends” and gamers far older and more worldly. Life for six- to ten-year-olds has taken on a pseudosophisticated zeitgeist far beyond the normal developmental readiness of the age. Outwardly, that compression may seem superficial, but inwardly, many children experience a suffocating squeeze on developmental growth that is essential for these early school years.

There’s Nothing Elementary about It

When parents, teachers, and school administrators call to talk with me about circumstances that have gotten out of hand or that threaten to, they often begin by explaining that these are good kids, good schools, good and caring parents. “But just last week ... ” they say before launching into stories of troubling new behavior and attitudes among these young students that have everyone struggling to understand how it could have happened and what to do now that it has.

“We had to expel a seven-year-old boy for threatening to kill a girl’s father,” a principal says. “This boy has used violent language and imagery that clearly comes from overexposure to TV or movies and had a psychological intensity that is beyond what our school culture is comfortable with.”

“The buses have always been tricky, but now they seem out of control,” an administrator at another school tells me. “A fifth-grader showed a second-grader an obscene YouTube video on a phone and thought it was funny. Neither child should have seen it.”

“My fourth-grade daughter got an e-mail from a boy in her grade who said, ‘I think you’re hot,’” a mother tells me. “She told him ‘I don’t like you saying this.’ I helped her write an e-mail to him trying to explain why it made her so uncomfortable. But now she feels like she doesn’t want to be his friend. She doesn’t feel safe with him. He never would have said that to her in person, and reading it felt so jarring to her.”

Once upon a time, the canon for childhood was fairly simple, particularly at this age: do your schoolwork, play fair, obey your parents, and honor your family. This was the age of friendship songs, a budding sense of justice, and knowing right from wrong. Of taking pride in practicing values like respect, kindness, and sharing because they represented maturity. Childhood has never been as simple as nostalgia portrays it, but the years from five to ten do represent a significant developmental transition that ushers a child from a protective home base into the larger world of school and society. Erik Erikson observed that at this age a child’s “inner stage seems all set for ‘entrance into life,’” as off they go to school. Every child enacts his own version of this passage. From the brave anticipation of five- or six-year-olds on the first day of school, we see our children grow in confidence and character day by day, sometimes in a wondrous moment right before our eyes. One morning the good-bye wave comes without a second look back at you. Your shy child tells you about his new friend. Your me-first child stops to lend a sympathetic hand to a struggling classmate. And from that, some five or six years later emerges a preadolescent with the seeds of moral conscience, identity, empathy, and agency firmly planted.

Healthy cognitive, social, and emotional growth through this period continues to be grounded in hands-on play, curiosity, imagination, and the layering of those experiences in the widening realms of family, school, and friendship. Children are eager to explore new ideas. They want to develop mastery, often in line with an interest, be it ballet, bugs, or baseball. They are open to new relationships in a widening social circle and with teachers. Technology is naturally enticing. Children tend to be fearless tinkerers and navigators in a realm that stumps their parents. However, even as they broaden their base of operations, they are still forming critical attachments to you, your family, friends, and community. This is the time to build a strong foundation for family primacy and values, for self-discovery, and for children’s natural curiosity about the people and world that surround them. Children need to develop their capacity to engage in life. That’s how they develop resilience and self-motivation.

This is a critical time for moral development. In these formative years from five to ten, kids are developmentally ready to grapple with issues of right and wrong, being accountable for their words and actions as they affect other people, and learning to reason on their own what it means to be a person of character. They have the mental muscle to wrestle with tough questions of conscience. With the infusion of computers, cell phones, and online activities at younger ages, elementary school also now has become the training ground for people relating to each other through tech. At a developmental time when children need to be learning how to effectively interact directly, the tech-mediated environment is not an adequate substitute for the human one.

The Inner Critic: New Critic: New Pressure to Measure Up Bigger, Better, Faster

No matter how fierce play may look on the playground or in the social scrimmage of the school day, the more grueling competition is the one your child faces each day to measure up in her peer group. At around age eight, children start to compare themselves to each other in more competitive ways. They develop the voice of the inner critic. I don’t have a best friend ... I’m not fast enough. He’s a better reader than me. There is nothing new about this, but media and much of life online introduce an adult context for a child’s self-assessment. The behaviors they see there that set the bar for cool, cute, bold, and daring come from the wrong age and life stage. The mix suddenly includes adolescents and adults, media coverage of fame-addled celebrities and jaded politicians, teen magazines, and Victoria’s Secret at the mall and in the mail. The inner critic’s presence becomes larger and louder. And it isn’t only inside their heads anymore. It is everywhere—in online chats, texts, e-mails, commercials, TV programs and screen games, and the vast 24/7 media milieu that crowds a child’s inner stage.

As the inner critic grows, parents become indispensable as the voice of the inner ally, the voice that helps balance a child’s innermost sense of himself. For the child, a parent’s optimistic steady encouragement becomes the child’s internalized voice that says I can handle this, I’m a good friend, I’m a good person, I know right from wrong, I take good care of myself, I’m a good helper.

This sturdy sense of self and self-esteem, the start of a core identity, takes time to develop. It’s pretty amazing when you consider the difference between a first-grader and a fifth-grader. Day by day, kids need time to process their experiences intellectually and emotionally, to integrate new information with their existing body of knowledge and experience. They need time to consolidate it all so that it has meaning and relevance for them. Ideally, they do that with their parents and in the context of family and community. It happens in debriefing time after school over a snack with mom or dad, in extended-day with a teacher, a caregiver or with someone else at home. Dinnertimes when thoughts about the day are processed through family conversations that are supportive and nonjudgmental. Bedtime reading and rituals that offer a quieter space for reflection and an opportunity to bring the events of the day to a peaceful close.

Time for all this was more readily available in the predigital age. With unstructured play on the wane and immersed as they are now in media and tech through these formative years, our children have lost that protected time for reflection and conversation, especially with parents and family. Instead, they often plug in for the ride home from school, watching handheld screens, circulating pictures, texting, or e-mailing friends en route. By the time they arrive home, their social network has moved on to the next thing and they with it, still plugged in to the trending conversation with peers. Kids don’t get home from school anymore; they bring school—and an even larger online community—home with them.

“I tell you, it feels overwhelming,” says a mother who used to look forward to the drive time as talk time but has seen it devolve into a futile exercise in screen censorship. “All of a sudden I’m driving and hear them in the backseat—they’re looking at YouTube and I think, What the heck? I mean, how much screening and censoring can a parent do?”

Nancy is concerned about her daughter Alex, a second-grader, feeling the pressure from peers to leave childhood behind before she’s ready. Alex still writes notes to the tooth fairy, but the other girls are already talking about makeup and teen-oriented online sites and TV shows they watch with their older siblings. “They’re talking about things she isn’t ready to know about, and of course she wants to be friends with these girls,” Nancy says. No wonder as a parent she feels trapped.

In Over Their Heads: Too Much, Too Soon, Too Fast

Long-established insights into children’s learning and their inner lives tell us that in the ways that matter most, speed derails the natural pace of development. Pressure to grow up faster or exposing children to content or influences beyond their developmental ken does not make them smarter or savvier sooner. Instead, it fast-forwards them past critical steps in the developmental process. Job No. 1 in elementary school is learning the rules of social engagement: how to make your way in the larger social group, how to make friends and be a friend, compete fairly, read social cues, and find your niche in the boy and girl cultures at your school. Doing so much of that through tech-mediated correspondence changes the playing field, significantly complicating the task.

So often when I am called in to help a child or a school with concerns, this developmental fast-forward tech effect has played a role. Sometimes a child has missed certain relational experiences—learning how to share, how to disagree without getting mad, make eye contact, and not put others down or engage in inappropriate touching. Or perhaps the child hasn’t heard important messages about what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to expressing our feelings or acting on them. Sometimes children are clearly copying behaviors they have seen on popular TV shows or YouTube pranks. Kids are still being kids, in that they act and react in fundamental ways as they have forever. These are not “bad kids” or emotionally disturbed children, necessarily. The third-grade boy who invited a girl he likes into a closet to lift their shirts and kiss each other’s nipples, which he had seen the night before on the family computer; a fourth-grade boy who sent sexually explicit rap lyrics to a girl he wanted to impress; the ten-year-old girl who sent Trevor the e-mails to get back at him for embarrassing her—they didn’t dream up those ideas or lyrics; they picked up disturbing content from a media and online environment that is saturated with it. They are in over their heads and they need adult help.

Developmentally, this is the time children need parents and teachers to help them learn to tame impulsivity—learning to wait their turn, not cut in line, not call out in a class discussion—and for developing the capacity to feel happy and alone, connected to oneself and empathetic toward others. Some things in life you just have to do in order to learn, and do a lot of to grow adept at it. Like learning to ride a bike, developing these inner qualities of character and contemplation calls for real-life practice. In the absence of that immersion-style learning, time on screens can undermine a child’s development of these important social skills and the capacity to feel empathy. Studies already suggest that media and social networking play a role in loneliness, depression, attention problems, and tech addiction among adolescents. Other findings also show media exposure contributing to impulsivity and aggression among younger children. With nature pressing for human interaction and a child’s world of possibility expanding in the new school environment, to trade it all for screen time is a terrible waste of a child’s early school years.

Emotional and social development, like cognitive development, can benefit from “judicious use” of tech, as described by Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and member of the Dana Foundation Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “But if it is used in a nonjudicious fashion, it will shape the brain in what I think will actually be a negative way,” he wrote.

In a Dana Foundation report, he and his coauthors concluded that “the problem is that judicious thinking is among the frontal-lobe skills that are still developing way past the teenage years. In the meantime, the pull of technology is capturing kids at an ever earlier age, when they are not generally able to step back and decide what’s appropriate or necessary, or how much is too much."

Michael Friedlander, the head of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and another member of the Dana think tank, said that given the dearth of hard data as yet on long-term effects of media and tech on children, “the best we can do at this point is look at a lot of the science that has been done in much more controlled settings and try to extrapolate that to the real world of kids interacting with these technologies.”

The Gender Code Starts Younger, Sexier, and More Aggressive Than Ever

Tara, the mother of three children in elementary school, describes her seven-year-old daughter’s tale from recess one day: The girls had sung “I’m Sexy and I Know It” in a self-styled American Idol competition between “girl bands” and “boy bands.” Classmates cheered boys and girls bumping and grinding—truly grinding together—or booed performances. They humiliated one boy to near tears with their jeers, intimating even though they didn’t fully understand it, that he couldn’t get an erection—couldn’t “get it up.” The girls didn’t even know what the language meant. They just knew the words from lyrics they had heard.

Long before they can read a chapter book, boys and girls are already well versed in the gender code for popularity, sexuality, and the everyday ways in which boys and girls are supposed to differentiate and define themselves. Just moments ago, they were rocking to Raffi and the constant chorus of parental coaching at home; suddenly, it’s R-rated music videos and popular songs with lyrics unprintable in family newspapers.

But in school, they take their cues from the crowd-sourced conversations they hear among friends and on social media. For girls, even seven-year-olds on the school playground, sexy is the new cute. Thin is still in, but for ever younger girls. In a study of the effects of media images on gender perceptions, one study reported that by age three, children view fatness negatively, and free online computer games for girls trend toward fashion, beauty, and dress-up games, reinforcing messages that your body is your most important asset.

Fran calls me, upset and frightened about her ten-year-old daughter, Channa, who has begun stopping in front of every mirror and pinching her tummy. She asks too often, “Mommy, am I fat?” She has stopped eating some of her favorite foods and brings home a half-eaten sandwich from lunch. She’s obsessed with America’s Next Top Model, sneaks to “how can I lose weight quickly” sites, and surfs fashion web sites. There is a history of eating disorders in their family. I meet with Channa one afternoon to assess what is going on. She is clearly in the early stages of the disordered thinking that paves the way to disordered eating. She has “good” and “bad” foods. She is afraid of being fat. She compares her body in parts—hair, legs, waist—to a popular girl in her class with that (frequently computer edited) cover girl look. Beneath these behaviors are early signs of social anxiety, emerging perfectionism, and insecurities that in therapy we will work to uncover and deal with directly.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about girls being taught that the primary source of their power is their body and looks. But prior to Britney Spears, most girls had ten years of running around, riding their bikes, and experiencing their bodies as a source of energy, movement, confidence, and skills. That was before children’s fashions included thong panties for kindergarten girls, stylish bras for girls not much older, lipstick or lip gloss as a top accessory for nearly half of six-to nine-year- old girls, and “Future Pimp” T-shirts for schoolboys.

Boys, too, are under pressure. They must measure up to the super-masculine ideal of the day, portrayed and defined by more graphic, sadistic, and sexual violence than the superheroes of yesterday. Homophobia and the slurs used to express it remain a common part of boy culture, but now at an earlier age, as does a derogatory view of all things female and an increasingly sexualized attitude toward girls.

Developmentally, these are formative years for learning and practicing “what it means to be me”—in this body, with this brain and learning style, with these likes and dislikes, and these fears and dreams. Children do best when they are free and flexible to try on and cross over the gender codes—girls who skateboard and play ice hockey, boys who draw or dance, boys and girls who enjoy each other without “dating” overtones.

However, that’s not the message they get from media images. When University of Indiana researchers Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison studied the short-term impact of TV viewing on children’s self-esteem, comparing results by gender, they found that TV viewing helped white boys feel better about themselves, and left white girls, black girls, and black boys feeling worse. White boys saw male media comparisons as having it good: “positions of power, prestigious jobs, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife” all easily attained, as if prepackaged. Girls and women saw female media comparisons in more simplistic and limited roles, “focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do, what they think or how they got there.” Black boys also saw their media comparisons in the negative, limited roles of “criminals, hoodlums and buffoons, with no other future options.” Video games, the researchers said, “are the worst offenders when it comes to representation of gender and ethnicity.”

Research shows that a majority of TV content reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, although new media are ramping up some gender traits. Males are ever more aggressive. Females are sometimes strong but always highly sexualized (think Warrior Woman fighting in Victoria’s Secret underwear). Researchers Karen Dill and Kathryn Thill analyzed computer gaming magazines and images of males and females taken from popular computer games, and with other research concluded there is “a clear link between media violence exposure and aggression” as well as to other damaging consequences including eating disorders, poor body image, and unhealthy practices in an effort to achieve idealized appearances. “Failure to live up to the specific media stereotypes for one’s sex is a blow to a person’s sense of social desirability,” the authors said.

Excerpted with permission from "The Big Disconnect" by Catherine Steiner-Adair. Copyright 2013. Harper. All rights reserved.

By Catherine Steiner-Adair

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