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Childhood 2.0


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Every generation mourns for the idyllic past of its utopian childhood. Few people are unaccustomed to the cliché "back in my day…" But the evidence of such nostalgia in those, such as myself, who have yet even to leave their own childhood entirely behind, is not typical. It points, rather, to a phenomenal increase in the rate of this ever-present development of human society. These updates are particularly apparent in the realm of technology. While the human condition has been infinitely improved in the pragmatic sense by this technology, there are other facets to such developments that are not so pretty. Technology is stealthily but unceasingly wreaking havoc on the most impressionable among us: young children. This damage spans the development of their minds, emotions, psyches, and even spirits. Its descent has been swift and soundless, cloaked in visions of paradisiacal lives of ease, convenience and connection. But beyond the glass and chrome façade lurks a formidable opponent to our very humanity.

I am astounded daily by the ubiquity of technology in the lives of young children. I know an eight-year-old who owns an iPhone; I was elated by the privilege of owning a flip phone in sixth grade. I am receiving Facebook friend requests from girls five years my junior. The Barbie dolls which were the inseparable companions of my friends have now been embedded with camcorder screens in their torsos. Had I been born a mere decade later than I was, afternoon games of whiffle ball with my neighbors would be replaced by games of Angry Birds or Temple Run on one electronic device or another. So many aspects to this transition fill me with dismay.

One central problem to the encroachment of technology on children is that it opens a bottomless pit of dissatisfaction within them. I remember as a young child opening my Happy Meal bag and discovering a small, hand-held video game device. Soccer balls 8 pixels across inched along the screen and into an equally low-resolution goal. The two buttons—left and right—moved the goalie character to one of three positions across the goal to block the balls. I was entertained for hours by the primitive gizmo. Any child today, however, would scoff at its simplicity. How could it possibly impress anyone who owns a smartphone with thousands of apps a couple of screen taps away? With this continuous march toward ever more impressive gadgetry there is a malignant cycle of rejection of technology which was perfectly impressive just the day before. This thirst for the newest, best technology spills over into other areas of a child’s life, massacring any fledgling sense of gratitude or satisfaction a child may possess, and replacing it with impatience and frustration.

Another heartbreaking consequence of childhood’s permeation by technology is the fading of imagination. A child’s imagination is just like any muscle: it must be exercised to remain strong. Some of the fondest memories I have from my early childhood are the hours at a time I spent with my friend dashing around our preschool playground fleeing from Nummer Neunzehn, the fictional but terrifying German villain bent on our demise, and fearfully studying “the disease,” an imaginary plague indigenous to her house. Playing school with stuffed animals, hosting tea parties for imaginary friends, building skyscrapers from wooden blocks—all the most rewarding experiences of childhood have almost nothing to do with the materials they involved, and are about as low-tech as it gets. Imagination is one thing children have a nearly infinite supply of, and that is part of their wondrousness. Who are we to allow such a radiant energy to be smothered at such a tender age?
The other integral part of what I consider a fulfilling childhood is interaction and bonding with others. There is no denying the importance of the formation of human relationships, and early childhood is when this invaluable skill is nurtured and developed. Technology is robbing even this from today’s young children. Young adolescents are making friendships through social media, before their social skills are fully developed. These bonds are doomed from the start to be superficial and short-lived. Phone calls and—heaven forbid—face-to-face interaction is being replaced by text messages at a younger and younger age. And more and more of the entertainment that fills a child’s day is no-human-required. I played Scrabble with my mom as a child, not Words with Friends with a series of detached usernames. Interpersonal bonds are defined by the channels through which they are established, and high-tech channels are incapable of communicating any meaningful emotions or experiences the way time spent physically together can. Technology is draining the pool of childhood friendship into a tragic shallowness.

What most troubles me about the increasingly dominant role of technology in childhood is the fact that time spent with technology is almost never time spent creating rich memories. What will today’s infants remember fondly when they look back on their childhoods—“I remember how happy I was the day I got my first iPad”? How rewarding will their memories be when they are doomed to be relatively devoid of other children or the boundless realm of the human imagination? Childhood memories are made from real, concrete experiences: from seeing, hearing, touching and tasting; from running and falling, climbing and swinging; from laughing and crying. They can’t be made from a couch with eyes glazed and finger swiping across a screen to launch one bird into another. I mourn for the future emptiness that faces today’s children.

My immediate generation is a rare one in that it has experience of both versions of childhood. We are some of the last to ever use paper-and-ink books to research school projects. While we were exposed to computers at a young age, it was mostly just to use the paint program. We learned to touch type at the same time we learned to write in cursive. I have hazy memories of snapping Polaroid photographs, and I remember being told that cell phones were soon going to include cameras. At the time I thought that was ridiculous—who would need a camera in a cell phone?—but now I use mine constantly. I am fortunate enough that the photographs of my early childhood are all on photo paper, not an SD card to be misplaced and forgotten. I have a collection of physical books to be proud of, not a Kindle full of files. My generation has learned the language of technology young enough to be fluent in it, but not so young so as to lose appreciation for the beauty of other, more essential languages, such as creativity and community.

I am not naïve; I can see the direction childhood is going. Time waits for no child. But I mourn the loss of the messiness, the joy, the sheer humanity of childhood that cannot be converted to binary code and filed away on some device. Children are so beautiful because they possess an innate curiosity, imagination, and innocence—these things do not translate into a high-tech world. It is up to my generation, perhaps the last to taste the idyllic “old” reality of childhood, to remember the importance it has had in shaping who we are becoming, and to ensure that as many of those lessons and experiences as possible are preserved for the generations to come. Technology tries to extract and quantify the abstract wonder that is a child; we must recognize the limitation of technology, and that the most important and life-giving things must be left to transcend it.




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