This week, Tim Gill of Rethinking Childhood wrote an interesting piece, Is Technology the Enemy of an Outdoor Childhood? It is well worth reading and responding to. In many ways, I feel the debate about digital technology in the context of outdoors is done and dusted. Any technology is a tool. It is as good or as bad as the person using it. Many practitioners including myself, have found digital technology to be an asset to our professional work with children.
For example, Twitter and Facebook provide me with an alternative form of news and information about relevant issues that the BBC has yet to match in terms of breadth and diversity. Facebook groups such as the Forest Education Initiative provide a lively and supportive place to go for advice, debate and comment on aspects of learning outdoors. I am writing this blog. You are reading it. Both involve screen staring. When digital technology is so prevalent in adults’ lives, how can we expect our children to ignore such devices, especially ones which are specifically aimed to engage them?
Part of my frustration is that this debate has been ongoing for decades. My mother bought a TV in the early Seventies when she realised my older sister was becoming isolated and left out of playground chatter as she didn’t know what other children were talking about. My husband really minds that his mum did not have a TV until he was 14 years old. He was an avid telly addict for many years and refused not to have a TV in the house. Is there a correlation between a person’s use of digital technology as an adult and their childhood experiences? Research has been done in the past on the impact of TV watching on children’s language development. In my own way, in my mid-forties, I’m a digital native from a different era. Has my brain been affected by watching too many episodes of Grange Hill, Blue Peter and whole Saturday mornings being enthralled at the spectacle of Noel Edmunds and The Multi-Coloured Swapshop programme? Quite possibly. I still am in awe of those who own a real leather football and wonder what Todd Carty is up to these days.
I find children all respond differently to digital technology. I remain dismayed when I read comments and statistics which paint a blanket picture. So often the individual situation is radically different from a mean, median or mode summary situation portrayed by statistical reports, research and the media. Even within families, siblings can radically differ in terms of their digital preferences and time in front of a screen. Some children are computer fans and adore the versatile nature of such devices. Many little children choose the “old-fashioned” TV over a computer – after all the TV screens are big and in the living room. Some teenagers adore texting. Others leave it to the bare minimum demanded by their parents asking to know where they are. Tablets are growing in popularity with people of all ages. What is likely is that the traditional family phone is no longer hogged by teenagers phoning friends for hours on end which was a common parental complaint in the Eighties.
Outside I also find children and young respond in different ways to technology. I’ve seen children being calmed and share moments of positive interaction with an adult when exploring how a phone works. I’ve seen children who will make a fuss about being asked to stop playing a computer game indoors, get totally absorbed in an outdoor activity such as putting up a rope swing and playing on it. Is being outside a panacea for our “screen addicted” children? I do not wish to make such a sweeping assumption given my own lack of knowledge on the research in this area. But I do find digital technology to be less of a confrontational issue outside and that the nature of many outdoor activities is such that a digital device is often only a temporary hook or distraction. Sometimes it adds value such as using tracking devices to monitor the movements of wildlife or to geocache. Back in the Eighties, many skiers discovered the fun of playing music on a Sony walkman whilst negotiating the moguls on a downhill run.
As Tim suggests, the problem is more than what screen, where and how much time you spend in front of it. Blaming the screen is like assuming obsesity levels are only affected by lack of physical activity. They are symptoms not simply causes. Symptoms of a complex, rapidly changing society where we need to be asking and reflecting more proactively and carefully about what we are witnessing and how we are acting in the context of sustainable lifestyles, social justice and meeting the needs of our children tomorrow as well as today.
So for me, the questions which spring to mind, are:
- How being outside can make a positive difference in terms of children’s wellbeing and society as a whole?
- Does being outside enable adults and children use digital technology in healthy ways?
- How can we use digital technology as a tool for positive change in light of meeting our own children’s needs and that of society’s now and into the future?
- Can our use of digital technology help us live more sustainably rather than add to the degradation of this planet and the current levels of resource consumption?
- Is time to move the debate on and up a notch regarding children, digital technology and being outdoors?