Future Watch: Children and Technology – How Are They Using it and What Impact Will it Have on Them?

Nine-year-old Canadian Darian Sund does not mind that his parents do not allow him to go outside to play without supervision. Defeating monsters and overcoming challenges in Nintendo’s “Legend of Zelda” fantasy action video game is infinitely more exciting to him, according to a report in The Colombian newspaper by Paris Achen.

“I’m more of an indoor person,” Darian, who lives in Walnut Grove, British Colombia, said. According to his father, David Sund, Darian is more comfortable typing on his own computer to complete his homework than writing homework out by hand.

Darian’s experience is testament to the growing impact that gadgets ranging from laptop computers to mobile phones are having on the lives of children. Naturally, the impact of this is currently being felt most keenly in developed economies where these products are much more affordable to parents, but children in emerging markets are also being affected.

The new context

According to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2009, young people aged between eight and 18 years in the USA spend an average of almost 1.5 hours using the internet every day and nearly 1.25 hours playing video games. Top online activities included social networking (22 minutes a day on average), playing games (17 minutes), and viewing video (15 minutes). 74% had a profile on a social networking site.

The survey also identified a significant increase in the ownership of portable gadgets among those aged between eight and 18 years between 2004 and 2009, from 39% to 66% for mobile phones, and from 18% to 76% for MP3 players. The survey also found that media use increases substantially once children enter the 11-14 year-old age group.

Daily Media Use among the Population Aged 8-18 in the USA: 2009

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 23 13.40

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

Note: Some of this use is simultaneous (watching TV and using a computer at the same time, for example)

Since this survey was conducted, such devices as Apple’s iPod Touch and iPad have become increasingly popular with children. The touch screen interfaces on these devices make them easy for very young children to use, and numerous doting parents worldwide have posted videos of their toddlers happily using iPads on sites like YouTube.

While value sales of video games hardware and software increased much more rapidly than those of traditional toys and games between 2005 and 2008, this trend towards convergence stalled during 2009 and 2010, as consumers in North America and Western Europe were hit hard in the aftermath of the autumn 2008 credit crunch. However, growth in sales of video games was uninterrupted in such emerging markets as Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East and Africa.

Real Value Global Sales of Traditional Toys and Games and Video Games Hardware and Software: 2005-2010

ScreenHunter_06 Jan. 23 13.58Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics

Searching for Connectivity

According to writer Neil Howe, the previously discussed Darian is a “late wave millennial.” He characterises these 8-13 year olds as exhibiting more pronounced characteristics of the millennial generation than the “first wave.” These include an intense desire to be part of a group, according to Howe, whose most recent book is called “Millennials Rising.” He argues that this hunger for a sense of community has fuelled their use of social media and text messaging.

According to Howe, “The charge you hear today is kids are addicted to social media, internet and cellphones. It’s not technology; it’s their friends and groups they’re addicted to.” He also argues that a lack of anonymity is making today’s children more averse to risk than previous generations:

“You can’t do something risky and not expect it to be brought up (on social media),” he maintains.

It is also frequently argued that the sedentary lifestyles promoted by the frequent use of gadgets are contributing to rates of both childhood obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). However, the latest generation of video games technology, such as the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect, are motion controlled and therefore not nearly as sedentary as traditional video games, and Microsoft is actively promoting the latter as a mother-and-child activity.

“O brave new world! That has such people in it”

According to British neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, “Could it be… that if a small child is sitting in front of a screen pressing buttons and getting reactions quickly for many hours, they get used to and their brains get used to rapid responses? Could it be that they then have to sit still for half an hour and of course they’re not used to that because they’re used to the rapid interaction with the screen, and could it be that they are fidgety and hyperactive and then diagnosed as having a disorder?”

A crisis of childhood or just another moral panic?

However, there are numerous historical examples of innovations in culture and entertainment that conservative voices have accused of corrupting the young (everything from novels and waltzing to rock and roll music in the 1950s and so-called “video nasties” in the 1980s) that have turned out to be chimeras.

“If we look historically we can see a cycle that plays itself out again and again,” argues Henry Jenkins, professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says that when young people adopt a new form of entertainment that adults are unfamiliar with “parents are spooked,” since there is no handed-down advice about how they should respond. “The result is a moral panic,” he concludes.

The brains of children are still developing, with the latest neuroscience indicating that this process may even continue into the early 20s. The truth regarding the true impact of the widespread use of digital technological on development will not be known until these “late wave millennials” are well into adulthood.

Whatever happened to the rocking horse?

Launched by Asobi Toys in the UK during late October 2011, the slow toy movement can be seen very much in the context of these concerns. According to a press release, it “aims to promote well-made toys that are sourced ethically and leave plenty to a kid’s imagination.” Slow toys are “not made of plastic,” have “no need of batteries,” and are both “ethically sourced” and “durable.” It predicts that slow toy are “set to be the next big cultural movement for the toy industry. Much like what Carlo Petrini did for the food industry with his Slow Food Movement.”

One UK-based blogger called Fun-as-Gran writes: “I am a firm believer that children need toys that stimulate their imagination, involve team play, and are long lasting and good value for money. I am not an advocate of putting them in front of the TV or shoving them on the computer, although we do have a Wii and use it regularly together.”

Future scenarios

Price deflation is likely to result in parents’ gadgets becoming increasingly affordable, which will inevitably lead to more parents buying them for their children. Tablet devices in particular will increasingly be used in educational settings.

The coming years are also likely to see the trend towards high-tech devices become increasingly prevalent in emerging markets, particularly India, where the government plans to roll out its low-cost tablet device, known as Aakash (“Sky” in Hindi), into schools nationwide during 2012. Jointly developed by UK-based DataWind and the Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan, it will cost around US$50 and has been hailed as a huge step forward in web access for children in India.

Similar plans are under consideration in many other emerging markets, such as Thailand. However, these types of devices are rather basic, compared with the likes of the iPad, and Wi-Fi connections and electricity supplies are not always reliable in developing markets like India, particularly in rural areas.