Childhood in the digital age
The challenge for parents, schools and educators is keeping the best part of pre-digital childhood and blending it with the benefits of the digital age, writes Adam Pease, CEO of Camp Australia.
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Over the past decade we’ve seen the market domination of smart phones, tablets, gaming consoles and wireless internet. Combined with social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, the explosion of these technologies reinvented the way we interact with videos, music and books. While the advantages of technology are easy to see, there are also an array of negative effects, which if left unmanaged could be detrimental to a child’s physical and mental development.
Schools have a responsibility to prepare children for the future, and technology is a key component of that. In his 1997 book Figments of Reality, British mathematician coined the term extelligence – which refers to the intellectual capital that is available through external media such as video and audio. In a world in where external media is growing at an exponential rate, teaching children to use it well may be more important than intelligence. Children can benefit intellectually from interactive programs and apps, as well as those based around music, movement and stories. However, the unrestrained expansion of extelligence through the internet conflicts with the measured release of information children generally receive based on their progress. Consequently, children can be exposed to concepts and experiences that are inappropriate for them.
Technology is not just used for the pursuit of knowledge, and the consequences of its misuse are broad. Television, computer games and internet sites are colourful, loud and enticing and it’s easy for children to feel the lure of technology to relieve their boredom. The time children spend immersed in technology outweighs the period they spend doing physical activities. As a society, our lifestyles are becoming much more sedentary than they once were and the incidence of obesity, especially in children, is rapidly increasing. The number of children that are overweight has doubled in recent years, with approximately 25 per cent of children currently considered overweight or obese .
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that children who experience more than three hours of screen time a day are more likely to:
• Be overweight
• Underachieve at school
• Be less physically active
• Drink more sugary drinks
• Snack on foods high in sugar, salt and fat
• Sleep less and
• Have fewer social interactions 
There is, and should always be, a time and place for technology. It shouldn’t replace reading, writing, playing or problem-solving activities. As educators, it is our responsibility to promote, encourage and make space for unplugged learning and play to help develop these crucial skills. It is a little ironic that after school care, which a generation ago was regarded by children as restrictive, is now one of the best opportunities a child has for free play.
Getting the balance right
Much as we should embrace technology and take full advantage of its benefits, so too should we embrace no screen policies for our children and encourage them to learn through experience, play and adventure.
Finding opportunities to do this can be difficult in our modern world. Many parents are trying hard to ensure physical activity is part of the kid’s childhood. This is one of the reasons that organised sport is such a major part of the lives of many children outside of school hours.
While this is commendable, structured sporting activities, particularly competitive ones, do not replace the benefits children were getting from unstructured play a generation ago. Unstructured or free play allows children to explore and extend their physical and mental capabilities in their own way. Learning life skills like negotiation, compromise, leadership and teamwork in a variety of circumstances and often from a number of perspectives. For example, a simple game of capture-the-flag quickly gives a child the perspective of both the hunter and the hunted.
It is ironic that after school care, which a generation ago was regarded by children as restrictive, is now one of the best opportunities a child has for free play. This is not to say that it is unstructured chaos, or a longer version of lunch time. Quality after school care does provide children with a safe no screen environment in which they are encouraged to explore their own ideas as well as new experiences. After school care delivers a safe, reliable and nurturing environment for kids to play grow and smile – that is why we do it.
Imagination games allow children to explore the role and importance of rules as they create their own world order. It also helps them understand that in order to lead, one needs to have the ability to get others to follow. Many of these games by their nature combine physical and mental stimulation and activity in ways that build a child’s self confidence in both of these spheres.
  Australian Health Survey 2011-12. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare