Dietrich Bonhoeffer was quoted as saying “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children”. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I am increasingly concerned about a growing disinterest by adults regarding declines in child health and wellness. What we knew to be true and evidenced based practice for raising, educating, and providing therapy for children seems to have gone by the wayside, replaced now by the ubiquitous technological device. Apps, video games, You Tube, and TV are now guiding our children, not adults, in home, school and even in clinic settings. Responding to a text, posting a picture on Facebook, or sneaking in a bit of porn or video games into the work day has so overtaken today’s adults, that they are scarcely looking at, much less caring for children. How, in just the past decade, has society grown to covet being with their devices more than their children? Sedentary, alone, neglected, and immersed in a virtual world devoid of anything human, we are slowly but surely losing our children to a virtual reality that is anything but moral. Constant exposure to images of violence, sex, defiance, and depravity are changing children…forever. Aggressive, impulsive, tantrums, insolent, and insecure, today’s child is a whole new breed of humanity that is already causing significant management difficulties. Yet the link between what children watch and how they behave, is largely ignored by adults. This article explores the recent trend toward adults giving more and more attention to their devices, and less and less attention to their children. In the absence of parental attention, children default to, and form unhealthy attachments to the device. As adults turn away from long held ‘moral’ beliefs and truths, what increasingly appears to be on the horizon are adult acts which would really be termed by civilized societies as ‘immoral’. This shift from moral truths to immoral acts by our virtual society, is likely to be the downfall of humanity as we once knew it.
George Orwell once said “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it”. As a purveyor of moral truths in my writings and workshops, I am very familiar with the glazed look that comes over people’s eyes when I speak about the detrimental impact of technology on children. It’s as if what I am saying will so disrupt their stressed and busy lives, that they simply can’t process this information. Parent’s, teacher’s and even therapist’s technology devices have been imbedded into their psyches to the extent that the mere mention of more responsible management is akin to asking them to cut off an arm. The facts certainly speak for themselves when assessing the state of health of today’s children. One in three children now enter school developmentally delayed (HELP EDI Mapping 2009/13, Houtrow 2014), and one in four are obese – with one third of these children going on to develop diabetes (CDC 2014). One in six children have a diagnosed mental illness with many on dangerous psychotropic medications (CDC 2014), and one in eleven children are now addicted to technology (Gentile 2011). Over the past 27 years of treating children, I’ve never seen them sicker than they are today. Family technology addictions are now estimated to be problematic in 40% of North American families. Never before in the history of humankind have we witnessed children with addictions, much less whole families. One nation under therapy is going to cost our society dearly, by bankrupting health, education and social governments, but also by destroying the family fabric that has for generations held families together. How have we slid so far down the slippery path of technology addictions, and what can we do about it?
The moral truths our society used to live by when raising and educating children were often passed down by generations of family through religious faith, traditions, and culture. Values were imbedded in daily routines and work ethic was strictly enforced. Families relied on each other to survive, and every child knew that if they didn’t do their chores, their family might not survive. Today, very few children have chores, or any expectations to work at all. Dependence, not independence, is fostered by parents now, as they imbed their own insecurities into their children. Half of North American adults between the ages of 20-30 years of age live with their parents, not working nor attending school. What are these adults doing at home? With the recent onset of handheld, portable devices such as cell phones and tablets, technology usage rates have soared, in adults and in children. Studies show that children now use 10 hours per day of entertainment based technologies, and 40% of adults are using over 11 hours per day. As adults continue to increase their use of technology, a cascade of unfortunate actions are the result, actions that could be termed ‘immoral’. These immoral actions taken by adults against children constitute what we would normally call ‘abuse’ or ‘neglect’, and are causing nothing short of extensive and long term ‘trauma’ to children. The following list of ten immoral actions taken by adults against children, truly reflect the level to which our society has fallen to when it comes to not caring for its most vulnerable.
- Diagnosed and Medicated – current trend by parents, schools and therapists are to diagnose and medicate problematic behavior in children. The Center for Disease Control reported in 2014 that 1 in 6 children have a mental illness diagnosis, with 1 in 65 children diagnosed with autism, and 1 in 10 with adhd. While it is a commonly held belief amongst professionals that both autism and adhd are genetic in origin, there is no research to date that has found biomarkers for either of these disorders. When children with autism and adhd diagnoses both improve with reduction of screen time, continuing to diagnose and medicate these children does indeed appear immoral. Efforts toward supporting family technology unplug’s would likely be a more cost effective and efficient means of treating these problematic child behaviors, than diagnosing and medicating them.
- 24/7 Irradiated – in 2011 the World Health Organization categorized wireless radiation from technology devices as a Group 2B (possible) carcinogen. This move by the WHO has not stopped the escalation of usage of devices which emit wireless radiation in daycares, pre-schools, schools, therapy clinics, parks, recreations centers, and physician offices. When there is mounting research showing harmful effects of wireless radiation in adults, should we not be acting with caution concerning children? Young children have thinner skulls, more aqueous bodies and brains, and higher cell turnover, indicating they receive higher penetration of radiation from wireless devices. Acting with caution by reverting to Ethernet cabled wired devices in homes, schools, and community is both urgent and imperative. Homes, schools, and therapy clinics with wireless radiation, are using children as guinea pigs, which is unethical, immoral, and most certainly reprehensible.
- Nature Deficit – over the past two decades, children have gone from spending 75% of their time indoors to 95%. When a child is deprived of the calming and sensory soothing aspects of nature, and instead is kept sedentary, restrained in a dark room bombarded with fast paced and brightly colored pixels, it’s not good for their body or brain. Children were designed to move to optimize their development, behavior and learning. Nature not only promotes play and movement, but is known to be the most attention restorative agent we have to promote learning. Nature’s effects serve to counteract the overstimulating and hyper-arousing aspects of technology. Yet, many children are kept indoors. Why would we do this? Safety is often touted by parents as the reason many children are kept inside, but often it’s the parents who want to stay inside, and therefore encourage and provide their children with devices to keep them quiet. Children have a right to be out in nature, and parents who deprive them of the outdoors are acting out of concern for their own self-interests, not their children’s, which is immoral.
- Sedentary – children are designed to move, and stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems promote development of core stability, strength, and coordination, all necessary for attainment of printing and reading literacy in school. Movement also enhances the cardiovascular system, important for prevention of obesity and diabetes, and consequently prevention of early heart attack and stroke. Hand a child a device, and they sit still; take the device away, and they move. All technology use by young children is detrimental to their development and should be restricted, as should use of strollers, bucket seats, and back packs. Children are not luggage to be carried – they should be running around and engaging in rough and tumble play, not sitting for hours in front of a TV. In 2011 the New England Journal of Medicine said we are witnessing the first generation of children many of whom will not outlive their parents, due to effects of sedentary lifestyles. Handing a child a device to keep them still, so parents, teachers and therapists can use their own personal devices, is immoral.
- Touch Deficit – children who are touched with lots of hugs, cuddles, and rough and tumble play, receive adequate stimulation to the mechanoreceptors in the tactile system resulting in activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and reduction in cortisol and adrenalin. These children who are touched a lot are consequently calm, secure, and relaxed in body and spirit. Children who are not touched enough are in perpetual sympathetic nervous system charge (fright, flight, fight) with bodies in high states of cortisol and adrenalin. These touch deficit children are consequently anxious, agitated, insecure, and fearful. Putting infants in bucket seats in front of the TV, and toddlers and children in strollers or on the couch with tablets, deprive these children of life sustaining touch. Technology is now the soother, not the touch of their parents, yet device use in young children is doing anything but soothing these children. Living in a virtual world is entertaining, alluring and exciting, as the child is able to control and satiate their every need. When the child is unplugged and required to revert to boring reality where they have to entertain themselves and have little control over their environments, tantrums are the unfortunate result. Using technology as a soother, and depriving a child of touch, creates more problems for the child and parents than it solves, and consequently is immoral.
- Asocial – technology use deters and prevents socialization, without which, we know children don’t survive. Everyone understands that children who receive minimal human contact die. We’ve known this from the 1940’s orphanage studies, yet repeatedly and for long durations adults place children as young as 6 months of age in front of bright lights and moving images to keep them entertained. Research indicates that a critical period for socialization in humans is from 6-12 months, exactly when many babies are placed in front of the seemingly harmless TV. Depriving an infant from social contact with caregivers and siblings is a recipe for early signs of autism, a social disorder. When we know that social skills are imperative for not only school success, but also success in vocational spheres, why would parents, teachers and therapists not be promoting socialization whenever possible? To deprive a child of social contact is a death sentence, and certainly is immoral.
- Violent – early exposure to pornography and video games is resulting in child expression of sexual and physical violence against other children and adults, as young as 3 years of age. By age 10 years, 42% of children are active users of pornography. Most video games contain pornographic and violent imagery, which leads to dehumanization and victimization, degradation of women, aggression, and ultimately what we have now, a murder and rape culture. As usage rates of porn and video games climb, unfortunately so does the addiction, as the immersion grows ever more pleasurable and intense. With addition comes tolerance, and a need to jack up the stimulus in frequency, duration, and/or intensity (depravity, perversion). The demand for porn is causing a sharp spike in the supply of prostitutes through Trafficking in Persons, which is now a ‘profession’ more lucrative than the gun trade. The immorality contained in porn and video games is incredible and deplorable. When a player can not only rape and torture, but also kill a woman while seeing their own hands on the victim’s body, and that player is 5 years of age, what type of humanity are we creating? Allowing children to view and play video games and watch pornography is beyond immoral.
- Attention Deficit, Impulsive – technology operates at ever increasing rocket speed, which surprisingly requires very little frontal lobe function to complete required tasks. The unfortunate result of not using the higher brain areas, is pruning of neuronal tracks to the frontal lobes, resulting in atrophy or death. As the frontal lobes are known for executive functions such as impulse control, knowing consequence to actions, seeing the big picture, memory, attention, concentration, learning, and judgement, losing the frontal lobes is not good. The de-evolution of the human species has truly begun, as witnessed by increasing problems with impulsivity, poor self-regulation, attention deficit, digital dementia, learning disorders, just to name a few, in both children and adults. Termed The Learning Paradox, the more you use technology the less likely your child is to learn, is not the message touted by baby TV and child ‘educational technology’ production companies. Allowing our children who have autism, adhd, or behavior problems in homes, schools, and clinic settings to use unrestricted technology, is nothing short of immoral.
- Isolated, Neglected – humans are pack animals, and are not meant to survive on their own. Sitting alone in a dark room with no obligations or demands, does very little toward building self-esteem and self-reliance. Many children develop only one skill these days, how to operate a device, and are sorely lacking in diversity of skills and confidence when out on the play field. The degradation of the family fabric, the values and traditions of interdependence which hold families together, have been severely eroded with technology overuse. Everyone has their own devices often in separate rooms, and even if they are in the same room, they are alone together. Whether a parent, teacher or therapist, we all have at some point put children on devices to assuage our own guilt about technology overuse and addictions. On numerous occasions I’ve seen whole classes of children on tablets watching a movie, playing video games, or doing “internet research” while the teacher sits at his/her desk on their own personal device. Therapists are increasingly putting children on non-evidence based video games and apps, under the guise of improving visual motor or spatial skills, and then picking up their cell phones. This practice is immoral, and simply has to stop.
- Illiterate – half of Canadian grade 8’s don’t have job entry literacy. Canada was ranked 13th and the U.S. 27th in the world on the 2012 PISA scores, an international test which measures science, math, and reading skill. Schools are passing children from grade to grade without the student having to accomplish any real work, resulting in growing defiance as the child falls more and more behind. Many teachers have quit teaching printing, as they think the proverbial device will do it all, even though most graded output is still produced with a pencil. The result is slow and laborious printing output speeds as the child struggles to figure out how to print themselves. In workshops, I tell teachers this practice is akin to me asking them to print mirror image, or in Chinese characters, without any instruction, and then me grading them on their quality and quantity of output. If all of the brain is tasked with is how to print e.g. where to start, which way to turn, when to stop, then there isn’t much brain left to spell, form sentences, or complete paragraphs. Children who can’t print are illiterate. Teachers who don’t teach children how to print are short sighted and this practice is also immoral.
Upton Sinclair once said: “It is difficult to get a man [or woman] to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Whether a parent, teacher or therapist, we need to look up from the device, stop thinking in our own best interests, and address the needs of our children. Thinking a device can replace the flesh and blood human is short sighted, erroneous, and not in the best interests of children. Reflecting back upon known and historically practiced moral truths and beliefs, is an exercise well worth taking when planning futures for today’s technology obsessed children. Realizing immoral acts, and correcting them, is a place to start on this difficult journey of unplugging from technology. The ways in which the new virtual society is raising and educating children with technology are truly not sustainable.
Research references can be located on Zone’in Fact Sheet www.zonein.ca under Info section.
Cris Rowan is a pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, speaker and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. Cris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-888-8zonein (896-6346).