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"Mommy, Pretend I'm Playing a Game on my iPad!"

Development expert notes alarming trend toward transhuman behavior in children.

This month’s guest post is by Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist and child development expert based in British Columbia. She is the founder of Zone'In Inc.

From Real to Virtual – The alarming trend toward transhuman behavior in children

Real to virtual: transhuman behavior in children
Envisioning the future has proven to be an effective technique for those children who are obsessed with present pursuits, such as playing video games every waking minute. So, as a pediatric occupational therapist working with these young warriors, I regularly ask them “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A few years back, the response was “I want to design video games”; today, it’s “I want to be ________ (a video game character).” The further and further children become immersed in the virtual world, the harder it is for them to cope with the problems and challenges of real life. Everyday life for today’s child is fraught with meaningless activity, endless challenges, and people who don’t do what they want. Video games are predictable, controllable, and they’re an instant star. TV offers them opportunity to pretend they’re someone else, seconded by Facebook, texts, and tweets. Google offers an endless stream of facts, just enough to impress attention deficit adults. The result? The desire to escape from the real world to the virtual gets stronger and stronger, as does the desire to become the false image created on Facebook, to become the TV, sports, or gaming character, to become the device, to become transhuman. Meaning “beyond human”, transhuman desires are increasingly detected in children who overuse technology, and indicate a need to understand and possibly restrict technology access. When a child prefers a device to a human, there is something gravely wrong and if not addressed, will only get worse.

To illustrate this point, a three year old boy I previously worked with actually thought he was a movie character, and got quite upset if told otherwise. He had quite the vocabulary which contained many expletives, and could target kick and punch with alarming accuracy. A five year old, who was playing imaginary games on an imaginary iPad in a real kindergarten classroom, when asked to help clean up, told me “I can’t hear you, I’ve got my ear buds in and I’m gaming”. Thinking he was kidding, I pretended to remove the device from his hands, and he got furious with me stating “You’re not my boss…you can’t take away my iPad” and stomped off. A 10 year old boy who had been expelled from school for anti-social behavior and aggression, when discussing alternate activities to gaming, started to cry and told me “I’m not good at anything but video games”! At a family meeting, 13 times the parents told their 4 year old daughter, who was whining and crying for their attention, to “go watch TV or get your iPad”, while they texted and tweeted on their own phones in front of them…during a meeting.

While the term transhuman was previously ascribed to technologies designed to enhance human capabilities, it is now being used more and more by young people who want to immerse themselves in, or see themselves as, a computer. A colleague of mine who works with young adults with technology addictions, described a client who had formed his identity using google glasses, and couldn’t cope without them. This client told my colleague that he wanted to be “transhuman”, to live in the google world, so to speak. The desire to be something other than what we are, is not new. We all have experienced envy and wanted to be someone else, a movie star, pro-athlete, or successful businessperson. But society now has a growing number of children, youth, and adults who would much rather to live in the virtual world, devoid of movement, touch, attachment, and nature…four critical factors for health and success. Think about it. The virtual world has a lot of advantages, which is why it’s so addictive…it’s immersive, immediate, controllable, reward-based, and somewhat social (if you consider fake love and fake war being social). The real world, on the other hand, contains problems children can’t solve, people they don’t like or can’t get along with, events that are completely out of their control, and instead of rewards, they fail time and time again…often miserably.

One of the most troublesome trends is the lack of socialization of today’s children. Tantrums, poor self-regulation, and aggression are the most common referrals I receive for the 1-12 year old population. Many enter school without intelligible, articulate speech, and go on to be handed an iPad. Adults seem to have forgotten that socialization is the key to future success, relational and occupational, and you can’t socialize a child with a device. How can a young adult graduate from high school, get a job, and have any meaningful relationships if they don’t have at least a minimum level of social skill? Half of young adults currently live with their aging parents. If anyone doesn’t think that we need to investigate what we are doing wrong in the early formative years by handing out devices instead of being parents and teachers, then we’ve a sad sight to look toward in the future…if there is a future…for these transhuman children.

Just four years ago, my now 19 year old daughter turned 15. At the time, 15 years was the average age at which most parents were allowing youth to get a cell phone, their own laptop, and a Facebook account. While we struggled with technology management, requiring imposing restrictive rules and at times confiscation, eventually my daughter grew up and out of her incessant need to be plugged in. Today, toddlers have their own iPads and iPhones. Over the course of four years, how did parents go from thinking that the appropriate age for responsible technology use was dropped from 15, to 2 years? Parents wouldn’t think of giving cocaine to toddlers, yet readily hand them devices equally as addictive and damaging.  I frequently hear parents saying “Well…it’s educational you know” or “It improves their visual motor skills” to explain their child’s incessant device use, when really what I observe is it’s the parent who can’t put down their device. Teachers are struggling with technology usage as well. In classroom settings I increasingly observe students either watching a movie on the smartboard, or screen hopping while they are apparently doing their “work” on iPads, as the teacher and/or TA are texting or facebooking away at their desk. Pouring money into buying more “educational” devices, is contributing to the escalating need for additional teachers and TA’s to manage the consequent problematic behaviors and learning difficulties.

What exactly are children learning when parents and teachers can’t put down their own device to provide much needed attention? In no uncertain terms…technology overuse by adults is resulting in profound neglect of children. Sad, mad, and bad, these neglected children are acting out and requiring more and more specialized services and support. With all these difficult to manage children, parents and teachers get more and more frustrated, which further stresses out the children, and makes everyone want to escape, to a world where everyone is happy and everything turns out okay. The move toward transhuman has begun…

You can read more of Cris Rowan’s articles regarding how technology impacts development at www.movingtolearn.ca/articles

For more on addressing excessive video game play visit www.drdunckley.com/videogames/

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in treating children with complex diagnoses and/or treatment-resistant conditions.

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