Is it any wonder, then, that Cam Adair, the founder of the online support community Game Quitters, stressed recently in an interview that, “There’s a massive tsunami coming that we’re not prepared for.”
Truth be told, we should have been. Technology’s dark side was actually brought to bear a decade ago by Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, a researcher at Stony Brook University and tech entrepreneur who identified the problem as “virtual distance,” the mathematically quantifiable and scientifically researched measure of what is lost when human beings rely heavily on smart, digital devices to communicate.
And I could argue that the ominous signs date back even further. It’s summer of 1980 and I’m on the couch for hours watching endless episodes of “Three’s Company” and “Gilligan’s Island.” I get interrupted by my older sister, Alexa, who needs me to move aside so she can watch “Magnum PI,” and I get sucked into that too.
Growing backlash against technology
We weren’t out-of-the-ordinary lazy in the summer. We had responsibilities and did chores. But they took some repeated nudging from Mom and Dad. Sound familiar?
The TV of 30 years ago is simply the Netflix, video and computer games, and Instagram of today. And I’m no different from my parents; I have a hard time seeing my kids — a 13-year-old, 11-year-old and three-year-old — plopped on the couch in front of a screen for hours on end. It seems so wasteful — and I’m saying this as the founder and CEO of a tech company focused on kids!
But in reality much of it is just that, wasteful. Plenty of ink has been spilled about millennials wasting their collective lives online, on smartphones, and in front of computers. Now there is a growing backlash — among young people disillusioned by the negative aspects of technology, among child development researchers who lament that our technology driven world strips children of some of the very things that make us human, notably empathy and communication, and even among industry titans like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has admitted that his platform needed an overhaul, especially as it relates to content aimed at kids, and is working to fix it. It’s no wonder that in a recent survey out of the UK, almost two-thirds of schoolchildren said that they wouldn’t mind if social media had never been invented.
The problem is global. A 2015 UNESCO report emphasized the need to build back what it called “transversal competencies” — critical and innovative thinking, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, global citizenship and physical and psychological health — in children because of the disturbing tradeoffs being made to insert more technology into their education.
Despite all the hand-wringing and mud-slinging, the fact is that Instagram, video games, Netflix, and everything else in the digital world are here to stay. So how do we harness this technology for something better? Yelling, jumping, and talking about “consequences” are ineffective.
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One answer I would offer is to harness our kids’ interest in technology and turn it into something productive. It’s not the screen time itself that is so problematic, but rather that this time is often spent simply consuming content, whether that be games, videos, or social media. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are some of the greatest enablers of creativity ever invented — if only they are used that way.
Coding and other STEM-type skills, for example, should be viewed as integral to a child’s development, much like sports, art, and music, as well as “the three Rs” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. The 21st century economy and job market — will revolve around science, technology, engineering and math. The Smithsonian reports that there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs by just the end of this year alone, so it is critical that kids today are equipped to succeed in this environment.
Moreover, rather than shun screen time, let’s make it fun and productive. Let’s encourage “making” games, rather than just “playing them.” My company, iD Tech Camps, operates summer camps across the nation that are specifically intended to nurture and encourage the inner scientist, engineer, and mathematician in every child. We offer courses in game design, coding, AI, machine learning, and much more, all in the hopes of sparking that crucial, lifelong interest in STEM, and a large percentage of our alumni pursue careers in those fields.
Key to the solution are engaged parents who recognize and can nurture a child’s interest in technology and ensure that it is being consumed productively. In fact, there are several things a parent can do — we do them in our own household — to create well-balanced kids and a tight-knit family unit.
Every job will require tech literacy
First, when we come home, phones go on the charging counter (even mine!). This lasts until the kids are all in bed. Even a three-year-old knows when a parent is engaged and focusing on her, versus pretending to focus on her.
Second, there are no smartphones before high school. I understand the downside and inconvenience of not having real-time communication with my kids. But that is not a bad thing. It gives them the opportunity to be resourceful and problem solve.
Next, while gaming, TV and screen time in general are not completely prohibited during the week, homework, chores and family dinner come first. And dinner, whether at home or in a restaurant, is device-free. Eye contact on a phone is disruptive and sucks everyone in. So put the phone on “Do Not Disturb” or put it away. It can wait.
The simple fact is that everything we do in the future will revolve around technology. Every job will require tech literacy. We try to explain to our kids that they have the chance to either consume, or to build the future. Yes, technology has its downsides, but it holds untold promise and it is not going away. Kids just need to be guided through it thoughtfully and led to a place of creativity and passion.
Pete Ingram-Cauchi is the CEO of iD Tech Camps, a STEM education company based in Campbell, California.