What Does Children’s Obsession With Technology Tell Us

Today’s technology may be meeting some of the same childhood needs as those of earlier generations. The desire to be an expert at something, to have a space to themselves, and to engage with peers are all things we wanted as children, too.

Each new advancement in media technology brings us waves of excitement and angst.

Smartphones and tablets are ruining childhood. No, wait, scratch that. Television is dumbing down our youth. Actually, hang on. Comic books are corrupting children’s morals. No, hold up. Books are ruining our ability to remember. Wait, back up a bit. We don’t like the way our kids have been painting on cave walls instead of just listening to elders recite stories by the bonfire.

The potential for using new tools to entertain, educate, enhance our worldviews, and improve our daily lives is balanced with concern about what each is doing to change us individually and culturally. Given that children and youth are often early and enthusiastic adopters of new media and technologies, our concerns are amplified partly because of protectiveness and partly because of generational snobbery (the lament often starts, “When I was your age . . .”).

Today’s technology may be meeting the same childhood needs as those of earlier generations.

When we look at children spending what appears to be excessive amounts of time watching television and using smartphones, tablets, and other devices, we are often looking through the lenses of our own experiences/memories of reading, playing outside, socializing with friends and family, and seemingly long stretches of time in which we didn’t have anything to do. We may even have a tendency to think that childhood was better without the influx of new technologies.

Yet today’s technology may be meeting the same childhood needs as those of earlier generations. Take, for example, the need for a child to figure out how to do things well. Whether it’s tying a shoe, throwing a ball, playing marbles in the mud, or mastering increasingly difficult levels of an electronic game, these experiences help a child feel competent. Child development theorist Erik Erikson even described a stage, the industry versus inferiority stage, when children between ages 5 and 12 are driven to demonstrate their competencies and begin to feel more confident in their own abilities. Mastering games and using technology in an expert fashion demonstrate children’s new talents and show friends, parents, and teachers that they are good at something. These opportunities are especially important for children who do not appear to be good at the things their parents and teachers want them to be good at (school subjects, for example).

Also, consider that children need some time away from adults, to be alone, to be in a world of their own invention or, if they cannot invent, at least a world of their choice. Maybe children need time away from the expectations, demands, management, or even “supports” we provide, simply to be on their own sometime during the day or week.

The desire to be an expert at something, to have a space to themselves, and to communicate and engage with peers are all things we wanted as children, too.

In a world in which many parents feel uncomfortable allowing children to play outside unsupervised, or prefer to keep children involved in scheduled activities, children are limited to a small number of places where they can be together without adult supervision. Once upon a time, you and your friends could bicycle around the neighborhoods or wander the fields for hours with no worries. Today, kids may view digital tools that allow frequent communication and shared experiences with friends as a way to replicate something no longer available to them.

As understanding as we might be, we are still faced with the practical question: When is “too much” just our knee-jerk reaction to unfamiliar forms, and when is “too much” really too much?

“Too much” occurs when one particular engagement seems to overwhelm and overtake everything else, whether it is music, social media, games, or even dare we say books? Almost anything done in excess can be a problem. What’s a telltale sign? If you take away that one thing, the child is unable to find anything else to do, unable to name anything else that is interesting, and seems downright miserable and listless.

There are no simple answers for finding a healthy balance, but there is a simple approach: Join children for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes whatever you can spare. Ask them to show you what they are doing, sit with them as they play, watch. You may get only glimpses of the underlying need that drives the outward behavior. Then, see if they would join you or if you would join them doing something else that may meet such a need without that particular piece of technology.

Finding a healthy balance of screen-related and real-world activities is tricky. As editor of Children’s Technology Review, Warren Buckleitner commented, “There’s an art to knowing when to set a limit, or when to play along.” Allow children to spend time in real and digital spaces, so long as they are still positively engaged in other important areas of their lives like education, activities, and play.

The desire to be an expert at something, to have a space to themselves, and to communicate and engage with peers are all things we wanted as children, too. Understanding those very real needs can help parents relate to (without condoning) their children’s obsessive technology-related behaviors. And, helping children fulfill those needs in other areas of their lives may be a way to bring more balance into their lives.

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