Childhoods now consumed by rigid schedules and technology addictions

November 21, 2019 — by Anna Novoselov

As a child, I remember dressing up Barbies, building Lego houses and acting out make-believe situations with stuffed animals. I would run around outside playing tag with friends and hot-lava monster on the playground, laughing and screaming — I was being a kid in the real world. 

Now, I often see little kids, some as young as 3, staring intently at phones or iPads and playing online games rather than exploring their imaginations by reading books, drawing and interacting with others. They were born into the digital age, while my slightly older generation seems to be the last one to grow up playing with actual physical toys.

While many elementary school age kids still play with toys, most would reach for an iPad over a plastic figure if given the choice. An adult cousin of mine, for instance, has sometimes struggled to pry away the iPad from her son, who intently stares at the screen while blocks lay scattered on the floor, forgotten. 

On Instagram, sometimes I receive follow requests from middle schoolers from Redwood, some as young as in sixth grade. But 11-year-olds shouldn’t be worrying about how many followers or likes they have — they should be outside playing four-square or kicking a ball around.

This early introduction to technology fuels online addictions and decreases interpersonal communication, as kids become used to constantly being on their digital devices. It doesn’t give kids a chance to explore their imaginations and creativity by coming up with make-believe scenarios and games. Furthermore, children may feel pressured to boast about their accomplishments or life experiences rather than simply enjoy their lives when they evaluate their self-worth based on the number of followers or likes they have.

A report by Action for Children (a UK charity group) and YouGov (a British  market research and data analytics firm) describes a poll that found that 60 percent of parents and 62 percent of grandparents believe that childhoods are steadily getting worse, partly because of the pressures from social media. 

That isn’t to say I grew up free from the influence of technology. But while I loved watching movies like “Finding Nemo” and playing online computer games, they didn’t consume my life. 

Compare that experience to  the one my younger sister has had. She is only four years younger than me, but technology is even more prevalent in her life than it was in mine. She received a smartphone at the end of elementary school and spends a significant chunk of her days staring at the giant screen. Even her homework is almost all online while mine was mostly on paper. 

This is just one way childhoods have changed radically in the past few decades, but not necessarily for the better.

When my parents were young, they would run outside to play with their friends for hours after school. Now kids spend those same hours playing video games or being dragged to various extracurriculars chosen by their parents for their child’s enrichment and intellectual development. 

Before, kids were in charge of their own entertainment and didn’t follow rigid schedules; they experienced genuine companionship filled with laughter and childhood fun. Everyday tasks (like contacting people) were more difficult and information wasn’t a Google search away, but life was simpler; childhoods didn’t follow so many rules and expectations. Adults didn’t expect children to take Calculus and prove the theory of relativity at the age of 6. 

Many parents nowadays want to protect their children from the harms of the world and do whatever it takes to ensure their children reach their full potential. This sometimes results in helicopter parenting where kids cannot make decisions for themselves and as a result, lose their autonomy and self-reliance. 

According to the Foundation for Economic Education, many parents may believe that crimes, disasters and even child abductions are more prevalent today than when they were growing up due to the emphasis placed on these events in the media. This belief often causes them to enroll their children in after-school daycare programs or activities to ensure that they are always supervised.

Consequently, more children than before are now coddled; they don’t have the freedom or opportunities to get into mischief or explore their interests. Many little kids, especially in competitive areas like the Bay Area, attend countless educational classes designed to get them ahead of their peers and prepare them to succeed.

But kids are kids. 

Their greatest development comes not from sitting in desks for hours on Saturdays and monotonously copying down notes, but from exploring and discovering with other children their age.

Through interacting with other children free from the control of adults, they learn independence, courage and the ability to resolve their own challenges and arguments.

Eventually, they will enter the adult world of responsibilities. Although classes and organized activities can certainly build their character and work ethic, they shouldn’t overtake their childhoods. 

While children now generally have a better education and more material possessions, their health is suffering due to radical changes in how children are raised.

“The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents,” a paper by Dr. Peter Gray attributes the increased prevalence of mental conditions such as anxiety, depression, narcissism and helplessness in children to the decline of free play. He reports that unstructured activities help children develop decision-making skills, learn to communicate with their peers, interact positively with others, and explore their interests.

A University of Michigan study describes similar conclusions. The researchers found that 85 percent of poll respondents believed that children growing up today had a greater risk of developing mental health issues. The university’s Mott Poll Report attributes this increase to the rise in stress levels and decreased interpersonal communication. 

My own childhood was a mixture of fun and academics. I remember experiencing adventures, exploring and imagining make-believe worlds,  coming up with characters and elaborate story plots. I would spend entire summers running around my grandmother’s summer home near the Black Sea in Russia, putting on shows for my family and building castles out of blocks. 

My older cousin and I would also often play computer games, striving to reach higher levels quicker than the other. But that was just a part of our friendship; we also interacted with each other in person.

Kids nowadays don’t get as much personal face-to-face interactions. Social media was created to bring individuals together and strengthen connections, but ironically, many studies have shown that extensive use is correlated with increased rates of depression and loneliness.

While most research studies, like a 2018 one conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, specifically focus on young adults, it is very probable that these effects can be generalized to any age group and especially young kids who have grown up with technology. 

Some employees, even major executives, ar Silicon Valley tech giants have limited their childrens’ time with technology, perhaps because they have firsthand knowledge of the addictive properties of electronic devices. Even entrepreneurs Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who arguably accelerated the transition to a digital world, tried to raise their children without digital devices. 

Maybe I sound like an old grandmother with my “back in my day” lectures, but this early and complete adoption of technology deserves concern.

Technology is extremely valuable and should be embraced, but not at the expense of actual communication. Children now should be able to experience a similar childhood to the one I was able to enjoy — one with a balance between digital devices, freedom and games.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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