A better balance for a brighter future

A better balance for a brighter future
May 8th, 2017

Neil Griffiths, children’s writer and trainer.

Neil runs our inspirational Reading for Pleasure roadshow events at schools across the country – check out our events page to see when our next roadshow is happening, and how you can book your place!

The case for limiting screen time for young children and encouraging a greater commitment to talk, play, reading and spending quality time together.

‘Children must become accustomed to using technology as the digital world is here to stay.’ C. Brunner.

One cannot but agree with this statement, as technology is without doubt the future and you can only marvel at its rapid progress. Each and every one of us benefits from the technical wizardry that is now on offer and even I, a digital dinosaur, who only recently moved reluctantly from my much loved OHP to PowerPoint, appreciate its benefits. I watch with amazement and, yes, an element of envy, as my many godchildren take to computers, iPads and consoles with ease and confidence.

It is also clear that technology in the workforce is becoming a necessity, not an option, and our education system must ensure that pupils are well prepared and keep ahead in the skills that may reward them with employment and a career. Our world is changing at a speed we have never experienced before and for some of us this has been at an uncomfortable pace.

I sadly cling to my Windows 6, familiar yet slow, and hold tightly to my simple Nokia phone that to me is comfy like a pair of worn out shoes. I am stubborn, I know, and friends and colleagues mock and moan at me as they desperately attempt to drag me kicking and screaming into the 21st century! But it’s so hard to be even in the now, never mind the future, as the technology giants constantly change the goal posts by introducing new browsers and models (not that I really know what a browser actually is!).

But I am trying and genuinely want to become more proficient and reap the positive and useful benefits that technology can provide to enhance my life. However, it will never dominate my life.

So, technology has much to offer, but I personally believe it has the potential to take away many crucially important aspects of our daily existence. As Dalton Conley stated in the Times Magazine, ‘our children’s digital lives are turning them into much different creatures to us – and not necessarily for the better’.

Recent research findings shed light on digital usage and expose some of the causes for concern.  K. Hatch states that ‘young children require human interaction in order to reach vital developmental milestones’. She adds that ‘there are 3 critical factors for healthy physical and psychological development, movement, touch and connection to other’. Here, for me, are the first danger signs. I believe passionately that the role of parents, educators and indeed society as a whole is to help create thoroughly decent human beings. Our aim should be to help individuals to like themselves, like others and in turn hope others will like them. Studies have shown that over use of computers and other entertainment media can lead to isolation and a retreat from everyday life.

One only has to take a look around you every day to see that technology is becoming a substitute for personal interaction. I looked around on an underground train carriage recently and three quarters of the carriage were totally absorbed in their phones. No-one looks at each other anymore! The final straw for me was watching four teenagers in a café texting each other across a table rather than talking.

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There is also evidence that whilst some types of technology such as a Wii can encourage physical activity, most are relatively solitary and there are suggestions that there may be links to the growing obesity crisis. This was recently reinforced by figures that showed young children spend an average of over a day a week staring into a screen.

Y. Cespedes observes ‘teens manipulate a joystick instead of a baseball bat’. It is known that children require between 3 and 4 hours a day of physical activity and human touch, and if they do not get this they exhibit greater signs of agitation and anxiety. There is no doubt that the near addiction to screens is seriously eroding this precious time.

Whilst I recognise that the world has changed dramatically and children no longer have the freedom to explore and play in the outdoors as I did, what hasn’t changed is the need for fresh air, experiences with nature and playful problem solving. A vital part of our development is the importance of seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and tasting. As yet, screens provide little of this through texting, emailing, Facebook and the many versions of face time on screen.

Parents, too, are becoming almost obsessed by their mobile phones and I observe on a daily basis many of our youngest children being almost ignored as parents stare into their tiny screens. We read daily in newspaper reports, OFSTED findings and teacher’s observations that our children are entering school with poor language development and limited vocabulary. One cannot be surprised by this as many of our children are exposed to fewer and fewer effective language opportunities at home.

G. Farkas makes it clear that ‘findings show that parents who are stressed, overburdened and less engaged, may talk, read or otherwise interact with their children less frequently resulting in their children acquiring smaller oral vocabulary’.

And yes, it does take time! We are all busier, much busier, but nothing replaces the positive impact of quality time together as a family. Society seems to have become used to distractions and constant busyness and we must recognise that financial pressures do result in many parents juggling work time patterns with time spent with their children. But nothing will ever replace the significance in my own life of coming home with frogspawn in my wellingtons and the joy of climbing to the top of an apple tree to reach the reddest apples!

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We need to show children that there is more to life than living behind a screen. Too many of our children are slipping socially and physically by hiding behind a ‘digital wall’. As C. Rowan states, ‘connection to devices may result in disconnection from what society should value most, the next generation’.

These important times spent with family and friends not only contribute to our general knowledge, well-being and personal skills, they are at the heart of our language development. A young child’s language is acquired through being talked to, played with, read to, and through experiences of doing things indoors and outdoors. Pew indicates that too many children ‘converse behind a digital veil’ and it is clear to see that face to face communication is being taken over.

At one point, it was reported that 50% of North American homes had their televisions on all day and 65% of people had televisions in their bedrooms. In this country, 1 in 5 8 year olds have a tablet of some kind. The danger here is that screens are becoming convenient pacifiers. It is encouraging, then, to know that France has banned terrestrial T.V. for under 3s and Australia and Canada are considering similar recommendations.

So in conclusion, technology has great benefits if used appropriately, but poses great risks too.  We must embrace it and reap its benefits but not let it control or dominate our lives.  We need to show children that there is a life beyond screen time and that there is a world waiting to be explored. An attempt must be made to reverse the trend and encourage our children to talk face to face and enjoy social interaction.

Above all it is time to ‘find time’! Time to grasp those precious moments together that form vital relationships, develop our social confidence, expand our experience, knowledge and communication ability and help create the unique person we will become.

‘It is now time for parents, teachers, health professionals, governments, researchers and technology production corporations to join together to manage the balance between healthy activity and technology use’.

C. Rowan.


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