Intrinsic Insight

Has the digital era taken our children hostage?

For almost an hour every day a typical British pre-teen is glued to tech products at home rather than opting for more traditional games, says a recent study. Their American peers – not under-digitalised, either – get researchers worried: a track record of children’s creativity for 50 years is showing a significant decline for the first time.

Do these findings have anything in common? The dwindling creativity seems at least partly due to limited first-hand engagement when kids play, argues early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige. “They need to manipulate objects physically, engage all their senses, and move and interact with the 3D world.”

This view is supported by neuroscience. Apparently playing with open-ended materials such as blocks, play dough, sand and water activates connections and pathways in the brain, which then solidify. Child psychologists fuel the debate by saying that many modern kids seem to have trouble sharing and playing cooperatively, lack empathy and demand constant entertainment and amusement. Yet parents needn’t be put off new technology altogether – or else survival in the era of “digital natives” would become tricky. The term “digital native” was coined by writer Marc Prensky in the early 2000’s, meaning children born into households containing computers and other digital devices.

These “natives” catch up on their “digital immigrant” parents’ habits in a split second.

When the world is convulsed by an iPhone and iPad craze, usher in kids’ tablet PCs. But now old-fashioned physicality strikes back: the latest offer marketed as a must-have Christmas gift are… real toys, such as a car or an action figure, that are placed on the tablet’s screen and interact with an app. Marrying old and new would cost you a pretty penny – the toy plus a matching app are priced at up to £40 a package. It has a market, too. According to a recent survey conducted in the UK and the United States, 39 per cent of adults who own an iPad have downloaded an app for children aged six to 11.

Whilst we don’t know yet whether the novelty will become a smash hit, we do know that tablet and video games are the daily reality of a Western world kid. Now, is anyone feeling optimistic about that? Apparently, the answer is yes. Proponents of tech toys point out that they can help preschoolers learn basic concepts and introduce them to technology they will use in school – and definitely later on in their lives. The world is overwhelmingly digital and becoming even more so every day. Some researchers say there is no evidence that technology undermines family life. After undertaking an 18-month empirical investigation of three- and four-year-old children’s uses of technology at home, Edinburgh professor Lydia Plowman wrote:

“It was not the technologies that determined whether a family communicates, plays together, or supports their child’s learning but rather their practices and values.”

So, it’s fascinating how looking at the same thing from different points of view yields nearly opposite findings. For instance, many voice the concern that hi-tech playmates and pets seem to “evolve” and grow – just like people do – but never age, get sick, or really die, which is misleading for a kid. Other argue that the once-famous Tamagotchi toy was sometimes given to children as a trial to see whether they are ready for a real pet.

There is no insurmountable gap between the two. As a leading researcher Mitchel Resnick put it, “Rather than focusing on the division between techno-critics and techno-enthusiasts, we need to focus on the difference between activities that foster creative thinking and creative expression (whether they use high-tech, low-tech, or no tech) and those that don’t.”