A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a local charity as part of a campaign to raise awareness (and encourage limits) on the amount of time young people spend looking at screens.
Most of us agree children spending long periods of time on one type of screen or another isn’t healthy, however, there is a dearth of detailed research about the long-term effects. Not least because we don’t yet know the long-term effects, given the first generation of children to have almost constant access to wi-fi (and therefore various portable devices) haven’t grown into adulthood yet. A report published early in 2019 noted there was no good evidence that time spent in front of a screen was toxic to health, although it did warn that the use of devices should not replace sleep, exercising and time with family.
I, and the people I live with have lots of devices and spend plenty of time watching screens; I’m not anti-screen by any stretch. But while I am less concerned with the screens themselves, I am concerned about what they replace. My childhood had lots of gaps because I’m of an age when children’s TV was an hour a day and games consoles were largely single games that, while initially engaging, soon lost their appeal. There was plenty of time for interaction with other people, and in the early years, plenty of space for creative play.
I’m sure there are more qualified people in the world with far better definitions of play, but what I mean is a process of invention and the decision-making and independence that involves. Dressing up, acting out scenes, playing with toy figures of any kind, imagining new worlds, making up story lines, or even just good old-fashioned cutting, sticking, drawing, painting and sorting; these are the kinds of activities that develop creativity and choice.* They are essential in children, because they are essential in life.
We have the capacity to receive (which is mostly what we do with a screen in front of us), but we are more than just receptors. As human beings we can shape the world around us; we can at least attempt to improve it, for both ourselves and others, but in order to do so, we need space to think; to daydream, to imagine, to wonder ‘what if’? Childhood provides the practice for seeing options and making choices; processes we will need in adulthood. But if screens fill up that space, what will be the long-term effects of less practice?
*(They also develop fine motor skills that really help writing in school, but that’s another story.)