Are We Digital Natives from a Different Era?

23 October 2013 · 5 comments

in Digital & ICT Outdoors, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Technologies, Whole School

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?

 Teenagers & ICT

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?
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Gill October 24, 2013 at 15:24

Thanks for this post Juliet, and for such an eloquent response to mine. I agree that the debate needs to move on, and think the questions you ask at the end are pretty much the right ones in terms of technology’s role. I would also urge us all not to forget that one of the reasons why *some* children are spending too much time indoors in front of screens (and I think some are) is that we have made it too hard for them to get outdoors.


Juliet Robertson October 24, 2013 at 16:01

Agreed, Tim! Darn… I wish I had made that point myself 🙂


Queen of logic October 24, 2013 at 18:20

I really liked this post Juliet – I get very frustrated at both the constant negativity re children and technology, and the emphasis that these concerns are limited to children. Like you I grew up with adult’s warning we would get square eyes from watching too much television and I know that as an adult I probably spend more time on the computer than is good for me. We cannot really expect children to embrace outdoor physical activity when the adults they see around them are more interested in technology. It’s a bit like condemming children’s diet and insisting on healthy eating in schools while the staffroom table is heaped with cakes. I think any adult involved in making decisions about children’s lives should have to practice what they preach and would love to see public service canteens and restaurants selling only healthy foods, or researchers churning out gloomy health warnings to turn off their digital devices and get outside for 2 hrs physical activity every day.
I do think being outside is beneficial to everyone and that we as adults need to model this and show our enjoyment rather than focusing on the benefits – not many of us respond well to being told what is good for us. I think we should be having a hard think about the funding that has been put into promoting healthy lifestyles to see if this has actually worked – health statistics would suggest it has had limited effect. If we accept that digital technology is part of all our lives the challenge is maybe to ensure that healthy outdoor pursuits are given equal publicity and ease of access. I think there is a move in Scotland towards this with TV programmes on different sport and leisure increasing and some great adult role models. Rather than compiling information leaflets and media health campaigns we could put the funding into developing parks or supporting local community outdoor groups.
I suppose what I’m saying is we need to look at how we can marry what looks to be 2 opposing ways we spend our lives, and to sort this out as adults so that we can model rather than preach!


Juliet Robertson October 28, 2013 at 08:52

Dear Queen of Logic

Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful response. Funnily enough, my own son has levelled such a challenge at me: he’ll switch off his X-Box when I turn off my laptop. Fair deal, really.

I think that down time comes in many forms and the screen issue is complex. I read books on Kindle. Is that better, worse or the same as reading a real book? I don’t know.

Thanks again


Queen of logic October 28, 2013 at 15:45

I held out against a Kindle but when I eventually got one was quite happy with it. As children we used to be chased outside rather than spending too long curled up with a book but that was maybe before safety became such an issue. Also TV didn’t start until 6 in the evening, plus no central heating so indoors was less attractive.

hypocritical examples – adults extolling the virtues of walking to school (in my day we walked 3 miles there and back etc) while taking the car down the street to the shops
Adults saying children should spend more time outdoors then complaining if they make a noise or gather in groups anywhere but in a child designated space
Anyone starting a sentence with “children should…” lumping them all together to make a negative entity, and seeing them as objects to improve.

Many people don’t get enough fresh air and exercise. Some people spend too much time staring at a screen or using technology instead of interacting with real people and situations. Does a constant barrage of advice/criticism alter this? I honestly feel that the washing powder adverts using images of children playing outside, exploring and creating, are more effective at changing parents’ minds than many an earnest professional leaflet. Maybe we need to ask computer and phone companies to use similar imagery in adverts and put the onus on them to inspire and inform us all about the potential their gadgets have for outdoor activities.
Programmes like Supernanny, Little Angels and Brat Camp showed us that it is usually adults’ behaviours that need changing if we are to have a positive influence on children. People working with children have opportunities to influence other adults by promoting the joy of outdoor play using technology to record and spread the message. Children will build on this, test and expand the boundaries in the same way children always have if they are given the opportunity, but we know early experiences have a long-lasting impact so with luck a connection with nature will remain an influence.
Maybe we should heed the Reggio approach of adults as co-learners and explorers rather than as teachers responsible for imparting advice, knowledge and wisdom? Less talking, more doing that’s what I say!


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