Growing Up in the Digital Age: The Value of Play

As promised in last week’s post, this will not be another discussion of post-secondary education; instead, I’m going to be focusing on a bit of a younger demographic. To be specific, today’s post will address how our ever-evolving technological society is changing the way we raise our children.

In recent decades, the rate of technological advancement and proliferation has been absolutely staggering. The processing power of computers has doubled approximately every two years since 1975. Concepts that were once the stuff of science fiction — 3D printing, for example — are on the verge of widespread household integration. Internet access is increasingly being viewed as a fundamental human right.

These developments are sparking incredible innovations in basically every field you can imagine, but not everyone is happy with the increasing role that technology plays in our lives. In a surprisingly blunt attempt at fearmongering, Nature Valley released an ad this summer that plays off the parental fear that children are spending too much time cooped up with their phones, computers, and video games.

As someone who enjoys all three of those things, I take issue with this sort of simplistic vilification. That being said, this blog was never about reactionary judgments and thoughtless condemnation, so let’s take a detailed look at what this ad campaign is suggesting and figure out whether there really is something wrong with the kids these days.

The ad’s suggestion that today’s youth spends more time than previous generations did playing video games, using cell phones, and on the internet in general is pretty undeniable. After all, the members of Generation X largely didn’t have access to the kinds of entertainment technology (as I’ll broadly refer to it) available to millennials, because most of them didn’t exist back then. Estimates of exactly how much time young people spend with entertainment technology varies depending on your demographic and how broad your definition is, but we don’t really need an exact number. Suffice it to say that millennials spend a lot of time with entertainment technology, in the neighbourhood of 20-40 hours per week.

However, an implication that the Nature Valley ad seems to take as a given — and something with which I fundamentally disagree — is that this is inherently problematic.

Consider two of the statements made by the children in the ad, occurring at approximately 1:27 and 1:40. One of the children claims to get completely immersed or “lost” in video games, while another claims to find support in games when he feels upset. What if these kids were talking about books, and how immersive and supportive they can be? Surely many of us, even across generations, have gotten lost in a good story or found comfort in our favourite novel at the end of a rough day. Why should video games be viewed in such a different light?

This example pretty wholly illustrates my problem with the ad and the grumbling “kids these days” mantra that serves as its foundation: a lot of people seem to believe that the growing role of entertainment technology in a child’s life must be having prominent negative consequences in their lives, yet there never really seem to be many concrete reasons for this belief.

Even when reasons are given, they’re typically snap judgments, easily called into question with a rudimentary google search. I’ll run through a few examples to demonstrate.

Critics commonly allege that entertainment technology promotes sedentary lifestyles in children, leading to higher rates of childhood obesity. However, childhood obesity rates are dramatically lower than adult obesity rates, and children are also still much more physically active than their adult counterparts. Obesity and inactivity are definitely problems, but your child’s smartphone is not the only (or even primary) cause.

Another common assertion is that playing video games or using other entertainment technology saps a child’s creativity and imagination. While there is some evidence of decreased creativity in specific academic formats (like essay-writing), education experts attribute this primarily to misguided approaches in school systems. In unstructured situations, kids today might actually be even more imaginative than their predecessors.

Finally, panicked parents often express concern that members of today’s youth won’t care enough about the natural world after having spent less time in it, so the fight against climate change will soon give way to apathy. Polls frequently illustrate that this isn’t the case.

Okay, okay, I think my bias is starting to show a little, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m somehow “anti-nature.” In fact, there’s one line in the Nature Valley with which I actually agree — or, at least, I agree with what it symbolizes. It occurs at 2:13, when one mother expresses concern that her son is missing out on the wonders of the natural world.

I agree with the significance of this line because it emphasizes the intrinsic value of outdoor play rather than trying to vilify entertainment technology, at least not nearly to the extent of the other complaints above.

That, more than anything else, is what bothers me about this ad and the mentality it represents. There’s this idea that playing outdoors and playing video games (or using other forms of engagement technology) are oppositional or even mutually exclusive options, or that one has to be valued or prioritized more highly than the other, when this is simply not the case.

It’s true that children aren’t involved in as much outdoor play as they used to be, and that’s definitely something that we should work on. Outdoor play in all its forms is a very valuable activity. But it’s also important to realize that there are a lot of factors that are causing kids to stay inside more, including parental concerns about potential dangers that lurk outside.

Of these factors, it’s probably best to focus on the ones that we can control. Portraying entertainment technology as the villain isn’t going to solve anything, because technology is only going to play a larger role in our lives as time goes on.

Rather, I think the solution lies in how we can use entertainment technology — like video games, for example — to promote outdoor play and all of its advantages. For contemporary examples of how this could work, look into Zombies, Run! or the upcoming Pokemon GO. These different forms of play shouldn’t be seen as adversarial when they work so well in tandem.

So in case it wasn’t already clear, no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with kids these days. They’re just searching for new ways to have fun and learn about the world, and parents get the amazing opportunity to help create these new avenues of play. It seems absurd to completely write off an entire domain of entertainment simply because it didn’t exist when you were growing up.

And for those of you who have kids: let them play video games, use their phones, and browse the internet (responsibly, of course). Then take them outdoors and show them how camping is like an adventure game, how their phones can be used as compasses during a hike, and how to start a fire based on a YouTube demonstration. Make use of all the tools at your disposal and teach your child how to balance the virtual world with the natural one so that each may complement the other.

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