Live, Play

Finding Balance: Kids, Nature, and Technology

July 22, 2015

A powerful video from the folks at Nature Valley is making its rounds on my Facebook feed today. It interviews members of three different generations and asks them one simple question: When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?

You could see the answers coming from a mile away.

The parents and grandparents of the children interviewed explained how their childhoods were spent catching fish and riding toboggans. They talked about how they built forts with their friends and played outside until the sun went down. Their answers came as no surprise.

Next they interviewed the kids who described their love for video games and iPhones. They said they couldn’t live without their tablets. They talked about how they use technology to break up boredom and help them through bad days. They spoke in terms of desperation. I would die without my tablet.

It should be noted that this is, first and foremost, an advertisement. But the fact that Nature’s Valley is trying to sell you granola bars doesn’t detract from the overall message: That kids these days don’t spend as much time experiencing nature as their parents and grandparents did. I like this ad because it rings true in a lot of ways. There is no doubt that today’s children are spending more time in front of screens and less time outside than ever before.

But technology is only part of the problem and to place blame on it alone is a dramatic oversimplification of the issue. It’s not like my generation, the people who are raising today’s screen-obsessed kids, didn’t have their own set of digital distractions. We never knew that someday we would have the internet at our fingertips (or that the internet would even exist) but we did have Nintendos and Gameboys and Nickelodeon and Saved by the Bell. The screen’s siren song may not have been as quite as powerful back then but it certainly did exist. So what changed?

I am not a social scientist but I can tell you what I have observed among parents of my generation and the kids that they are raising.

I have observed children whose days are scheduled within an inch of their lives. Children whose days, between school and homework and extracurricular activities, are so full that they don’t have much time for anything else. Children who are so exhausted at the end of the day that they want to veg out in front of the TV or computer or iPhone, and really, who can blame them? Don’t get me wrong, structured activity is good and important. But so is having the opportunity to explore and play and learn on your own.

I have seen loving, well-meaning parents so driven by fear that they won’t let their (appropriately aged) children go outside by themselves. Whether they fear their children being snatched by kidnappers or having the cops called on them for negligence, these kids aren’t getting the kind of freedom that we did. Many parents feel that the world has become a more dangerous place for a kid these days, but it’s just not true. The reality is that kids today are actually a lot safer than they were a decade or two ago, back in the days when we were kids ourselves.

I have seen families that are so overwhelmed and stressed out by work and parenting and life that they don’t have the time or energy to put into encouraging their children to get off their iPads and go play outside. Convincing your kids to turn off the TV can sometimes be a battle and for a lot of people, it’s one that they’re too exhausted to fight. And again, who can blame them?

We are a family that uses a lot of technology. My husband is a bona fide and self-described computer nerd who loves holing up in the basement (he calls it his “lab”, I call it “the dungeon”) almost as much as he loves riding and racing bikes. I regularly see the world through the viewfinder of my camera and my desire to acquire less crap means that I buy less physical books and do a lot of reading on my iPad. I love social media and spend a lot of time on my iPhone. Hell, my husband and I even met on the internet, back before meeting on the internet was a normal thing to do. For us, technology is an important and inescapable part of life.

I suspect that we’re not all that different from most people.

Like everyone else, we’re figuring things out as we go. We both take the view that all this technology is not going away (nor do we want it to), so we better learn to live with it. We do what we can to find balance and encourage our kid, as much as possible, to play outside. But we’re not militant about screen time. We spent all last weekend camping in the mountains but, as I type this, my son is watching his favorite show (Thomas the Tank Engine, obviously) on Netflix. Tomorrow’s plans involve a trip to the lake to go paddleboarding and some time spent hanging out on the beach. When we get home, tired and sun-drunk from a day spent outside, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll watch Thomas again. He knows his way around an iPad and a bike park. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, technology or nature. It can be both. If ever there was a place for moderation, this may be it.

I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. And while I certainly agree with the gist of this Nature’s Valley ad, I think it’s only a starting point for this conversation. Until we change the way we view childhood and address our own (often ill-founded) concerns around granting kids some room to roam, they will continue turning to their screens for entertainment. Until we leave some space in their schedules for unstructured, outdoor play, they’ll keep being so exhausted and overwhelmed that vegging out in front of a movie seems like the best possible idea. Until we give them places where they can explore and play and act like kids, they’ll continue to hang out on the couch.

As someone who is exceedingly dependent on technology but also a rabid lover of the outdoors, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I hope that this campaign (which seems to be going viral, at least on my Facebook feed) gets people talking about the things that keep our children from experiencing childhood the way that we did. I also hope that the conversation can address why we are addicted to technology and not just the fact that we are.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you do to balance the powerful lure of the glowing screen with your desire for your children to play outdoors What do you think keeps kids from playing outside the way that we did when we were little? 

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