Future proofing children for a digital world

Alaina Luxmoore headshot

Alaina Luxmoore

Director of Marketing

September 6, 2022

5 mins

Two babies sitting with a tablet between them, playing a game. Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

As STEM education sees technology introduced earlier in life to future-proof children for a digital world, is enough being done to also protect them from the physical and mental health repercussions of tech?

Digital Natives. A term Marc Prensky coined in 2001 to describe the generation of people who grew up in the era of ubiquitous technology including computers and the internet. While those of us on the early 1980’s side of the Millennial spectrum may still have memories of a device-free childhood, by the end of high school we were starting to complete essays on a computer and text our friends.

Since then, the integration of digital technology into one’s childhood has ramped up to the point where now we have apps designed for toddlers, basic coding in primary school and kids making powerpoint pitches to their parents as to why they should be allowed a puppy.

Most ‘kids these days’ cannot imagine a tech-less life.

And wonderful things have been done with technology. Kids can quickly and easily bond with far away relatives - something that’s been crucial to maintaining connection during a pandemic. Smart wearables like Fitbits encourage movement and gamify physical challenges. There is unprecedented access to educational resources, tools and videos.

However, as we scroll through the news or one of a dozen social feeds, the headlines are quite confronting. Anxiety at an all time high. Attentional problems. Instant gratification. Cyber bullying. Body dysmorphia. Depression. Loneliness. Young people radicalised by an online community.

Sci-fi movies and TV shows have imagined a dark and serious world impacted by technology - Black Mirror, The Social Dilemma, even Wall-E - but these are not so far from the truth.

In a popular 2016 talk, Simon Sinek says in relation to Millenials: “We know that engagement with social media and our cellphones releases a chemical called dopamine… Dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink, and when we gamble. In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive… An entire generation has access to an addictive, numbing chemical called dopamine through social media and cell phones.”

The very best and the very worst of humanity is reflected in technology - and therefore passed on to our children. We can’t turn back the clock, they need to stay tech literate to compete in this world. So what can we do to minimise the bad while we amplify the good?

The roundtable groups pooled their diversity of experiences as a mix of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (those who weren’t brought up with tech, but had to learn and adapt as they aged). They have experience as parents, as students, people with a long career in the tech industry, and people just entering it.

Over and over, we heard the word ‘balance’. The difficulty is defining what balance means or looks like in relation to technology and children. Is it an equal share of screen time and physical activities? Is it the balance of online engagement with being present and learning mindfulness?

If we dig into the analogy of technology being like an addictive, numbing drug - our thoughts may immediately go to social media, or maybe gaming. You don’t necessarily think about technologies like GoPros, or calculators, or LEGO Technic, or apps that scan and identify bugs. So there is a whole set of technology which is not so much about looking for a numbing escape, but about using imagination, problem-solving and innovating.

A kid putting together a robot and programming it to compete in a national or international competition, as seen in the Kiwibots programmes, does not have the same negative, addicting effects as putting a cellphone in the hands of a child and giving them access to social media.

Not all tech is created equal.

If a kid is putting in their curiosity, their energy and their imagination, out comes a creative solution, an invention, a new way to experience the world.

If they put in their boredom, their worries, their judgements or their naïveté, that comes back - twisted or amplified.

As parents, guardians and educators, we’re the first gatekeepers to technology, and the role models of how to interact with it. Yet many of us, especially in the tech sector, spend so much of our day in front of a screen for work.

Are WE role modelling disconnecting from tech as much as we would recommend children do?

A good balance seems to be about encouraging tech to be used for creative problem solving or imaginative play, and minimising the use of it for escapism or distraction… as well as fostering a healthy mix of online and offline interactions and physical activity. This blend will look different at different ages, and the main outtake was that families need to create a system that works best for their children.

In the aforementioned talk, The Millennial Question, Simon Sinek signs off by saying: “We know, in industry - whether we like it or not we don’t get a choice - we have a responsibility to make up the shortfall. To help this amazing, idealistic, fantastic generation build their confidence, learn patience, learn the social skills, find a better balance between life and technology because, quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”

What if we...

👾 Create problems for kids to solve in order to access more screen time

⏰ Allow and encourage boredom and autonomy

⚠ Promote access to resources for parents

☘ Create more tactile tech so not everything is in an online/virtual world

🌮 Lobby schooling system to provide STEM classes at all ages and enrol children into STEM extracurriculars

🐙 Create a family agreement to monitor tech time, and have healthy conversations about our attitude to tech-time — it’s not all bad!

This article first appeared in ‘Connecting for a Better Future: a collection of essays’ in response to the RUSH x AUT Techweek Roundtable Discussions published in September 2021. Read the full whitepaper here.

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