A Disconnected Summer?

Can children switch off devices and play outside?

Posted Jun 21, 2019

Something I read recently flashed me back to my own childhood. It was the Parent Orientation Handbook for the “sleepaway” camp that my two grandchildren would attend, their first experience at ages 8 and 11 living away from family.

I spent many summers (as did my children) at “sleepaway” camps—of the barebones erect-your-own-tent, scholarship variety. Although almost all of us children had homes equipped with televisions, radios and phones (how quaint and simple the list of technologies was!), it never occurred to us or our parents or the camp staff that any of those devices would find their way into the woods to join us at summer camp. Instead, we rapidly adjusted to chirping, buzzing nature sounds, diamond sprinkled night skies, and brilliant flashes of lightning as summer storms swept across the lake.

Fast forward to the summer of 2019. During the two weeks my grandchildren would spend by a Wisconsin lake in cabins and tents, the Parent Orientation Handbook took pains to state—in boldface print—the campers would be techno-free, or as some would say, “techno-deprived.” No cell phones, laptops, tablets, Apple watches, Game-Boys or any other device with a screen. As if knowing in advance how radical a proposition this was, the Handbook seemed to implore parents with a large font entreaty: “We ask parents for their cooperation.”

The irony not lost on me was that this information came to me as an email attachment. Moreover, as I read the Handbook on my tablet, I scrolled down to the camp’s invitation to “like” them on Facebook and the staff promise to post daily pictures and updates of camp activities for parents and other family members there, ensuring that we would all obsessively scan our Facebook feeds to catch a glimpse of our beloved children at play away from us.

Here was a perfect example of “techno-ambivalence:” screen-time use decrying the use of screens. I plan to compound this contradiction further as I post this blog entry online for Psychology Today where people everywhere on their screens can click to read this entry. It is easy to conclude that contemporary life is so thoroughly integrated into the Internet and lived via screens that the only sane response is to embrace this new reality. Following this logic, some educators are pushing back against any screen time limits. Their mantra? “Screens are our future.” For example, in a recent opinion piece in the journal, Tech & Learning, Lisa Nielsen points out (correctly) that the interactive, engaging learning potential of screen-based curricula can counter the well-documented boredom of adolescents and enhance the educational environment for students with disabilities.

On the other hand, as screens proliferate and tempt us with ever more seductive content, they are crowding out other activities. The screen as a babysitter may well be reducing face to face interaction between caregivers and young children. In a 2012 survey, 41% of parents reported giving their young child a device while in a restaurant. With the child happily glued to the hand-held screen, the parents could safely ignore the child in favor of some adult conversation, or more likely, their own mobile devices. Surveys indicate that 38% of toddlers under two years of age have used mobile devices. Pretend smartphones and tablets are popular toys for the very young, a kind of anticipatory socialization rehearsing screen time almost from birth.

There are other troubling signs of screens as drivers of isolation, A 2012 survey reported that nearly one in four children have a television in the child's own bedroom.  Since 2012, mobile devices have proliferated and video games have expanded their allure. We can hypothesize that 2019 updates of these surveys would show an upward trend (although that needs to be verified).

The research literature on the effects of screen time has grown enough so that trends can be identified. In a recent literature review, Gadi Lissak summarized physical and psychological effects. Physiologically, excessive screen time is linked to poor sleep, the risk for high blood pressure, obesity, low HDL cholesterol (the good kind), impaired vision, reduced bone density, insulin resistance, and poor endocrine stress regulation. This is a veritable smorgasbord of physical assaults on the developing child. Psychologically, excessive screen time has been associated with internalizing (e.g., depression) and externalizing (e.g., antisocial) behaviors, as well as ADHD symptoms.

There are plenty of problems with this research. First, how does one define “excessive”? Is there a time limit that applies to all children? Clearly, developmental age, individual temperament, variations in family circumstances, among other factors, are important. Secondly, these so-called “effects” are actually correlated or associations. Children already at risk for obesity or high blood pressure, for example, may gravitate to screen time. Depressive symptoms may lead some children into solitary time with their bedroom television set. It is premature to consider “case closed” on the actual effects of screen time, independent of other factors. In addition, how should one think about the relation between screen time and adverse behaviors? Is it a linear relation, whereby each additional minute of screen time equals an added 'dose' of negative behavior? Or, is screen time harmless up to an (unspecified) limit, or tipping point? After that, one begins to see a positive correlation between minutes on screen and the maladaptive 'outcomes' listed above. Finally, content undoubtedly matters. Lots of time engaging with fast-paced violent content is different from equal time doing math puzzles on screen.

Nonetheless, I have a nostalgic appreciation for the idea of a summer, where the only screens are the mesh kind that keeps out mosquitos. To buttress the case for a tech screen-free summer, one can add the growing research literature on the beneficial effects of contact with nature. Here, we are talking not about nature documentaries on television or YouTube videos, but face-to-nature full body sensory experiences in a woods, by a lake, in a park, or even digging in a dirt patch. I am rooting for such a summer experience in my grandchildren’s camp and for children everywhere.

References

Lissak, G. (2018). Adverse physiological and psychological effects of screen time on children and adolescents: Literature review and a case studfy. Environmental Research 164, 149-157.

Nielsen, L. (2019). Innovative educators don't recommend screen time limits. Tech & Learning 39, 11.