Virtual childhood

A quick note after attending two events recently where both speaker and audience attitudes towards children and technology struck me as worth a comment. A compelling presentation by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, at the Campaign for Learning‘s ‘Can we learn our way to happiness?’ conference, and a panel debate on youth and social exclusion here at the RSA both addressed the demise of outdoor play and the adverse affect of changes to childhood on children’s development.

We know that the space allowed to children – both literally and figuratively – to play and to learn by themselves is severely curtailed. Children are less active, they learn less about risk taking, socialising and independence. There are innumerable reasons why the loss of outdoor play and the freedom of children to explore unsupervised is to be mourned, and anyone that knows me would tell you that I would be the first to advocate the great outdoors – for children and for the rest of us.

That said, it seemed to me that many of the delegates and speakers at both of the events I went to seemed to accept an unproblematised characterisation of outdoors = good, computer games = bad. This was to the extent that I felt such a judgment was an emotive one based on a certain amount of nostalgia for more traditional idea of childhood, and an uncertainty about new technologies and their impact on children.

Such nostalgia could get us stuck, when what will benefit children are pragmatic and progressive approaches.

We need to be pragmatic and accept that unsupervised wholesome, educational outdoor play is not going to be a reality of for many children now and in the near future for many reasons, including poverty, home location, parental fears and changes in childhood culture. And, we need to deal with the reality that interaction through ‘virtual’ interfaces is often more a reality for some children than building a den in a wood ever will be. While it is important to maximise the potential of the real life worlds of these children, we must not in doing so deny the validity of virtual interactions because of their failure to live up to adult nostalgia for  idyllic childhoods of the past.

Secondly, we need to be progressive in our attitudes towards children and technology, and recognise the opportunities. A number of organisations (see Consolarium for example) are looking at the educational potential of video games in developing risk taking, strategy and even citizenship. BECTA have done work on the advanced communication skills picked up by children who are interacting daily with hundreds of others through online networking sites and interactive online games. It is important that the potential opportunities offered to many children by the internet and other new technologies are embraced, understood, and maximised, because we all want today’s children to have the skills and knowledge that they will need to thrive in the rapidly changing 21st century.

If adults don’t engage in a balanced manner then we run the risk of allowing our fears about obesity, internet predators, unwholesome content and the rest limit the potential positive impact of technology on the lives and development of many children; just as fears about traffic, abduction, paedophilia and accidents have led to a reduction in otherwise fêted outdoor activity.


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2 responses to “Virtual childhood

  1. Sue Palmer

    Thanks so much for saying my presentation at CfL was compelling! Sadly, however, I must have failed to make my point clearly enough.
    The research I’ve been doing into child development doesn’t suggest that screen-based learning or entertainment is ‘bad’ for children (at least children over, say, 6/7) and I’m sure there are many ways it can be harnessed to develop essential 21st century skills. But I have two reservations:
    1) There’s increasing evidence that ICT may be damaging to brain development in the very early years of childhood, especially the first three to six years. Even if this is only a possibility, we should be highly circumspect about the use of screen-based technology with the youngest children. (Indeed, the French recently banned TV aimed at the under-threes.) All the neuroscientific evidence points to the critical importance of first-hand experience — of both the material and social worlds — in the early years.
    2) Even if ICT can be developed to enhance older children’s risk-taking skills, etc., in a biological, social, terrestrial species like ours it can never be a substitute for real-life experience. 21st century children need both real and virtual learning. And the unfortunate fact that it’s difficult to provide opportunities for loosely supervised, unstructured outdoor play in inner city areas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every effort to provide it.
    Please don’t fall into the trap of writing off my concerns as some sort of yearning for Enid Blyton-like ‘traditional’ childhood. The authentic children’s play I’m talking about is a feature of every culture across the ages in which childhood activities have been recorded (see Judith Harris’ book ‘The Nurture Assumption’). Some things you can’t just throw away (paving Paradise to put up a parking lot) — not without paying a really serious price a little way down the line.
    Best wishes,
    Sue Palmer FRSA

  2. louisethomasrsa

    Thanks so much for your comment Sue – it’s great to be having such an important conversation on our relatively nascent blog and really glad to have your views.

    I don’t think I’d disagree with you – Toxic Childhood gives an authoritative account of how real and digital worlds impact on children.

    My concern is with how easy it can be for adult audiences to retreat to overly cautious positions about children – be it over unsupervised outdoor play, or the dangers of digital culture. The case you make about the positive and negative impacts of digital culture is convincing and balanced. However, media doomsaying about youth, childhood and education coupled with the instinctive conservatism of many adults that you highlight means that the balance can get lost.

    In the light of that I was seeking to argue for an optimistic look at digital culture that examines at the negative effects and the risks but also asks how can we make the best of digital culture, what are the opportunities, and what if anything should we be careful to promote as explicitly good for children?

    This has tended to be missing from most public discussions on this topic and as such, perhaps needs to be more actively promoted to give the debate better balance?

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