I want to provide you with a “big picture” sense of the kind of life that I believe your children should lead during their formative years. This life should result in their developing into children who have both the “old school” values, attitudes, and tools and the “new school” skills (i.e., technology capabilities) that will enable them to thrive in the 21st century.
At the heart of this life that I advocate for is that your children should live a largely unmediated life in which they can have direct access to their experiences. When I talk about unmediated, I intend it in two ways. First, so many children these days are forced to view their world through the “lens” of popular culture, whether the things they eat, wear, or play with that have merchandising tie-ins or simply the presence of popular culture in everything they see, watch, read, and listen to. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see how these popular culture filters would have a significant impact on how your children come to view themselves and their world. You want your children to see themselves and their lives unencumbered by these lenses, in which they can experience life in a pure and unbiased way, allowing them to decide for themselves on its meaning and how it might affect them.
Second, as the research on the astonishing amount of time that children spend in front of screens suggests, so much of their day is spent viewing the world through a screen, whether television, computer, video game console, or smartphone. As I will describe shortly, this mediated experience—a screen is always between them and life—has significant limitations with real implications on their development. You want your children to experience most of their life directly without what are really virtual representations of life as rendered through a screen.
Your children should also experience their lives in three dimensions. New developments in movies, video games, and other forms of technology have resulted in what is called 3-D, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the same thing. 3-D movies, video games and now smartphones provide the illusion of three dimensions, but, in reality, continue to be two dimensional. Though certainly adding to the entertainment experience of the different media, there is, nonetheless, no substitute for the true three-dimensionality of real life.
Though there is no research on this topic to date, it seems reasonable to speculate that so much time devoted to the two-dimensional world of technology could hurt your children’s processing of the three-dimensional world. You want your children to perceive and interact as much as possible with all three dimensions of the world as it exists in reality, not in a virtual world missing a dimension.
All of the Senses
Another thing that makes real life so real and satisfying is the richness of the sensory experience that it provides: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, movement, temperature, pain, and emotions (not exactly a sense per se, but experienced acutely in sensory form). Yes, technology has made great advances in replicating the experience of real life, for example, improved visual graphics and sound (e.g., video games), the sensation of balance and movement (e.g., Wii), and, yes, emotionally evocative content, though typically artificially created and irrelevant to real life (e.g., FarmVille) or kept at arms’ length (e.g., Facebook).
It seems likely that the substitution of complete sensory experience with one that is lacking, fragmented, or mediated in its sensory output could again have developmental ramifications for your children. You want your children to “consume” the depth and intensity of the full spectrum of sensory information that is available to them through unmediated living.
Technology, by its very nature, puts children in a box, a very bright, shiny, and fun box to be sure, but a box nonetheless. This box is based on technology’s necessity to restrict the options it programs into software. You may think those dropdown menus give your children options, but what the menus really do is limit their choices. When your children are placed in a box they have no incentive or capability to think or act outside of that box, which is what creativity is all about.
Also, because technology provides a complete “package” (narrative, visuals, etc.) in TV shows, movies, and video games, little is left to children’s imaginations; they become consumers of others’ creativity rather than producers of their own. I would argue that the imagination and creativity are “muscles” that will only develop if exercised.
Real life offers children experiences that are open-ended, giving them the opportunity to flex their imaginative and creative muscles. They’re free to create whatever “box” they choose (or create no box at all) based on the choices from the universe of options that are available in the real world. The only limits that exist are those set by children’s own imaginations and the physical parameters of real life (and that rarely holds them back). Isn’t it a true marvel to watch a child engage in imaginary play with nothing more than a few props? The worlds, characters, and story lines that they create are remarkable. You want your children to have that freedom to explore what is possible (and even impossible) and those opportunities cannot readily be found in the virtual world.
Real life has context, meaning it occurs within a framework of time (past, present, and future), relationships (your children and other people), and consequences (what your children do has an effect on the world). Yes, later in life some of the use of popular culture and technology gains context because it exists within and is an extension of real life. For children, much of popular culture and technology lacks context because their use of them is usually a suspension of time, not a part of life’s timeline. Also, because much of the involvement with popular culture and technology occurs either alone or through virtual connections, children lack the context of real relationships. What children do as they, for example, watch television or movies or play video games, has no direct consequences on their lives or the lives of others. You want your children to spend most of their time in the context of real life because it is that context that children are able to gain perspective on time, relationships, and consequences that are vital to their healthy development.
Real life is physical, meaning that much of what children do in their lives involves physical action and an understanding of the place that their physical being holds in the world in which they live. Most of technology limits or lacks this essential physical component either by children sitting passively in front of a television or simulating actual physical activities with a Wii.
Yet, as developing physical beings, children need physicality to be a central part of their lives. Given the epidemic of obesity among children today, regular physical activity has immense ramifications on children’s and our nation’s futures. Physical activity, for example, sports and dance, and not the simulated variety found with technology, is essential for the healthy development of motor skills.
A great challenge that all children face, particularly as they enter puberty, is to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies. This experience is especially difficult these days when popular culture offers unrealistic and often unhealthy physical role models—images of beautiful and thin women and handsome and muscular men are ubiquitous—and so-called physical imperfections can be easily corrected with cosmetic surgery.
You want your children to experience their bodies through physical activity in ways that will enable them to learn about, become skilled in, and feel at ease and secure with their bodies and physical life.
I’m going to once again borrow a term from the tech world that has tremendous relevance to your children’s world. That word is resolution, which refers to the clarity and sharpness of an image, whether a printed photograph or one viewed on a computer screen (usually defined in terms of pixels or dots per inch). Now you might be wondering what resolution has to do with your children. Well here’s how. Technology creates a low-resolution approximation of reality that offers an incomplete experience that lacks “granularity,” meaning richness and complexity, and, as I noted above, three dimensionality. Yes, it offers practical benefits and entertainment value, but is it high resolution enough to want to regularly substitute for your children’s real life? I don’t believe so.
When I refer to high resolution, I mean the full sensory experience of real life, but I also mean its entire social and emotional experience as well. What makes life so high resolution is that it is granular, that it is detailed in all the ways in which we experience it. Life is often risky, messy, difficult, and sometimes hurtful. Life is two sides of the same coin. Your children can’t experience the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of life unless you allow them to also experience its less pleasant sides. You want your children to experience a high-resolution life that is unmediated, unfiltered, and unlimited (with your guidance, of course). Only with such high-resolution experiences will your children develop the values, attitudes, and skills necessary to prosper in the real world in which they live, only a small part of which should be the tech world.
Certainly, technology can play a role in your children’s real lives; they can have great fun with it and they will need to learn how to use it to lead productive lives. I think you would agree that it shouldn’t be a free, unfettered, and dominant force in your children’s lives. If that happens, your children will miss out on so much good stuff that makes unmediated life far better and more interesting than a mediated life could possibly be.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, real life, and much of the meaning and satisfaction, and happiness accrued from it, comes from our relationships with others. The development of your children’s social lives is essential for much of their future psychological and emotional health and well being. In fact, considerable research has found that the quality of relationships is the single best predictor of happiness.
Yet much technology doesn’t allow for the development of relationships, whether watching television or movies, playing video games alone, or surfing the Web. Yes, some technology, for example, Facebook, texting, and multiplayer video games, have a social component, but they strike me as having serious limitations. First, relationships that are based in technology seem to be “social lite,” because it limits the contributors to the real richness of human interactions (e.g., usually lacking facial expressions, body language, and emotional content). Or, second, they are “social safe” because it keeps relationships at a comfortable distance and protects children from the risks and hurt (along with the benefits and joys) of real social interaction.
Don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place for technology in children’s social lives. It provides many avenues—for example, Facebook and Skype—to begin and maintain relationships. Interactive video or online games are certainly better than watching TV or movies with others, generally passive and asocial experiences for children. Are they as good or better than kids playing tag or whiffle ball or dress up? I’m going to vote no on that one. You want your children to be immersed in a predominantly rich and unmediated social life that offers everything they need to develop into socially comfortable, confident, and connected people.
What Life Do You Choose for Your Children?
There is, as they say, more than one road to Rome. I can’t offer you a clear and well-defined path that you should take in raising your children in this world so dominated by popular culture and technology. Everything I speak about addresses issues that are not black and white, but rather offer many shades of gray. Which shade of gray you choose depends on your own values and attitudes, your relationship with technology, your understanding of how popular culture and technology influences your children, and the goals that you have for them.
My real point is to convey the importance of my view that you need to be both well informed and deliberate in how you expose your children to popular culture and technology. You can use these criteria of a balanced childhood that includes both unmediated and mediated experiences as a lens through which to look at your children’s relationship with popular culture and technology and, through that lens, you can decide how best to make that vision a reality in your children’s lives.