I’m worried. In fact I’m really worried.
Before I begin this blog post, please know that this is one of the most difficult posts I’ve written. My heart is pounding out of my chest. My fingers are working double time as they try to keep up with the ideas in my head (and heart). I feel nervous.
I’ve deliberated about writing this post for four days now. And I’ve desisted. I’ve shelved the idea. Opened and shut the draft. Heck, I even saved this blog draft in my computer folder titled ‘Blog Posts Not to Share’ (yes, I do have one of these).
But I just can’t stop thinking about this. I’ve had conversations with my (uber patient) husband and when I saw the blog post The Death of Conversation, I decided it was imperative that I share this post.
Because it’s so very important.
It’s important to me as a children’s technology researcher. It’s important to me as a mum. But most of all, important that I share this post for children. You see, I’m genuinely worried about how our children’s use of technology’s shaping their development. How are our decisions, as parents, impacting the way children use technology?
So I’m going to stop babbling and cut to the chase now.
Last Saturday night my husband and I went with two friends and our sons to a local, beachside pizza restaurant to celebrate our son’s birthday. Nothing fancy, just a great, local restaurant that makes the best pizza (and opens early enough for children).
We arrived early as you do with young children. As did three other families and a few older couples (dinner was at 5:45pm, need I say more?) and one nervous couple (who looked like it was a first-date). Yes, as I’ve mentioned before I’m an “astute social observer” (aka “sticky beak”).
We were engrossed with our conversation and trying to keep two young (and tired) children preoccupied with food, books and wrapping paper. And as I looked around, trying to identify who we might need to apologise to in advance, if our children got a bit restless (or accidentally flung food in their direction) I noticed something.
And it was bizarre. And I wasn’t the only “astute observer”. Our friends also noticed the same thing. And we were gob-smacked.
On two of the other three families’ tables, the children were silent. And I mean completely silent. Not a peep. But their faces glowed from the devices they were clutching (it’s a dim-lit restaurant).
On one table, there were four children aged between 6 and 12 years (from my guess) and they were huddled over a smartphone and iPad (two children/device). And they were all playing Minecraft. And they did not turn off their devices for the entire time they were at the restaurant (we stayed longer than they did so we observed the entire meal). The devices were literally in their hands when they walked into the restaurant and they were in their hands whilst they were trying to stuff pizza in one-handed (points for co-ordination). And the devices stayed on whilst they pushed in their chairs and walked out of the restaurant.
One the other table, there was a family of four. The two children had their eyes glued to tablets and headphones plugged into their ears for most of the meal. One was watching a movie and the other…playing Minecraft (again with headphones on). The father sat with his smartphone until his meal arrived and then he placed it away. The mother sat there with no device (and also with no one to interact with). Like the other family, the children continued to be mesmerised by their screen and were adept at watching/playing and eating simultaneously. And again, the screens were on for the entire duration of the meal (feeding two little ones is a slow process, so we had plenty of time to watch).
Now at first, I thought I was more attuned to noticing what was going on because of my work as a children’s brain and technology researcher. But when I saw our friends’ reaction I knew that it was unusual…and concerning.
Now I know I’m about to open a can of worms here, because I’ve previously talked about “techno-shaming”. And this is certainly NOT what this post’s about.
I don’t want to make parents feel guilty about letting their children use tablets or smartphones at a restaurant. That’s not the point of this post.
I know, first-hand that in some instances, parents have little option other than to offer a digital device to entertain or pacify children in restaurants or cafes (waiting rooms, airports etc). Raising my hand to say I’ve done this. I don’t do it all the time, but there have been times when I’ve felt I’ve needed to do this (when the flashcards and keys and purse options didn’t work, or if I just wanted to have two minutes of uninterrupted conversation with my husband).
So please, please, please know that I understand that sometimes using the digital pacifier helps (and it often works when keys and purses don’t).
But I’m worried. In fact I’m really worried.
What are the long-term, social implications if we’re raising children that are completely screen-obsessed?
What are we teaching children about meal times and the value of real, face-to-face interactions, if they spend their entire time at a restaurant glued to a device?
What sorts of media habits are children developing if they can’t go to a restaurant without their device in tow?
Are children so engrossed with Minecraft (and other technologies) that they (and their frustrated parents) can’t bare the thought of going out without a device?
Or are times simply changing? Is this the way of the future? Personally, I certainly hope not! A world of screen-obsessed children terrifies me.
Surely, we have to think carefully about the media habits children are developing.
I’d love to hear in the comments below, do you worry about how technology’s changing our social interactions? Are restaurants no-go tech zones?