From giant storefront LED signs to devices that fit in the palm of your hand, we have assimilated screens of every kind. Yet from selfies that spoil the restorative effect of nature to heavy social media use that makes us lonelier than ever, screen invasion can affect self–image, the way we communicate with one another, and the way we feel .
How will upcoming generations fare when they are exposed to screens earlier and in more ways than ever before?
Social Media competes with social brain networks
A German approach to early education could possibly mitigate the way that screens interfere with social development in the young. A growing number of experts see high levels of stimulation from the immediate external world as a force that competes with the process of plasticity through which experience naturally forges new connections among nerve cells. Especially during the early years, these connections are laying down brain networks for socialization and emotional intelligence [2, 3].
From an evolutionary perspective our brain is inherently social. Infants instinctively read others long before they learn to speak. They can distinguish different facial expressions and what they mean. Another burst of social development happens during adolescence and puberty, but the process continues, less robustly, well into one’s twenties.
When the real–world experiences that drive these pathways are pushed aside by audio–visual stimulation that emphasizes sensation at the expense of critical thinking, then we have conditioned ourselves to “socialize” only through texts rather than face–to–face interactions.
Kindergarten: “The work of a child is play”
Early education in Germany stresses “playful learning” over rote memorization and book learning. After all, the word Kindergarten coined by educator Friedrich Fröbel in 1852 translates as “garden for children” and implies a place where they can grow up in a natural way. Kindergartens put the focus on the child and emphasize joint cooperation, learning from nature, and discovering their inner feelings.
Kitafahrten, or “daycare outings” (fahren = to travel or wander) are the antithesis of hypervigilant helicopter parenting. German youngsters 3–to–6 years–old head for the woods accompanied only by their teachers, their classmates, and their wits. No books or pencils come along because Germans generally don’t learn to read and write until the age of 6. Phone calls and texts are verboten. “We’ll contact you if needed,” is all the teachers tell parents.
By law, kindergartens must strive to develop their pupils into independent, self–sufficient individuals. Families do their part to instill social skills, too: It is common to send young children to the bakery or on similar errands all by themselves. The baker eagerly joins in the exchange. In America “free range” parents who encourage such behavior risk arrest for child endangerment and loss of custody to Child Protective Services. In a famous case in Silver Spring, Maryland that’s exactly what happened to parents who let their two children walk to a nearby park by themselves .
Kitafahrt teachers don’t panic when their charges disappear, as they typically do. Experience tells them they will be fine. By nudging the very young to explore on their own, German teachers teach them to cope with challenging circumstances. On Kitafahrt outings they sleep under the stars, roast sausages by themselves around the campfire, and invent their own games with sticks and stones by the lake. As these youngsters explore the forest, choose their playmates, settle their own disputes, and figure out how to ask for help, they are developing the lifelong gift of resilience.
Green exposure can focus the mind
France has a similar classe verte, or “green class,” that takes place between the first and fifth grades and likewise encourages students to learn from first–hand experience such as pottery making, weaving, and exploring the woods rather than solely from books. Finland’s version is largely kindergarten in the forest with an emphasis on exploratory learning. “The work of a child is to play,” says one Finnish educator. “When they are moving their brains work better.” The American Academy of Pediatrics agreed in its 2018 report: “The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized.” Play–based building with natural materials, problem–solving, and physical activity all help to develop fine motor skills .
Our Stone–Age brain is at home in an environment where it gets to engage its natural disposition to socialize during the early years when it engages in robust plasticity. When the brain is busy laying down the physical networks for social and emotional intelligence is exactly the time they can be pushed aside from their prescribed trajectory by competing audio–visual stimulation that screens deliver in abundance.
Epidemic of college loneliness
NY Times columnist Frank Bruni says this about college freshman: “Arriving snowflakes are lonely. They don’t know how to engage other people.” Thanks to “their fixation on digital screens, communicating almost exclusively by text and avoiding face–to–face interactions.” They have had no practice in making small talk or listening attentively so they can sustain an actual conversation. They realize “to their horror that they are quite unprepared to navigate the real world. The social world” [6-7].
And that’s the crux, isn’t it—the paltry development of social brain pathways in kids who have been fixated on screens their whole lives.
Outdoors, everyone wins
What if America adopted a European–like approach and had primary school teachers coach students in how to build and maintain friendships? Older Kitafahrt students act as guides to less experienced ones because it works both ways: assisting others builds character and confidence, too. Everyone learns to give and take when they practice social skills. An atmosphere in which students practice making friends and going through what it takes to sustain actual ones helps forge the social bonds that mitigate isolation, loneliness, and feeling left out.
Because much of today’s world is predicated on the use of digital screen media, youngsters can’t realistically live as luddites. What the educational approach of other countries suggests is that building resilience and a strong social foundation leaves youngsters better able to adapt to inevitable screen technology without it undermining their social development.
1. Gazzaley, A. and L.D. Rosen, The distracted mind: ancient brains in a high-tech world. 2016, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
2. Russo, F., The Toxic Well of Loneliness. Scientific American, 2018. 318:64-69.
3. Way, N., et al., The Crisis of Connection: Roots, Consequences, and Solutions. 2018: NYU Press
4. St. George, D., "Free Range" parents cleared in second neglect case after kids walked alone The Washington Post, June 22, 2016.
5. Sahlberg, P. and W. Doyle, To Really Learn, Our Children Need to Play. The Wall Street Journal, August 10-11, 2019. p. C3.
6. Haidt, J. and T. Rose-Stockwell, The Dark Psychology of Social Networks. The Atlantic, December, 2019.
7. Bruni, F., The Real Campus Scourge. New York Times, September 2, 2019