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Can A Mother Who Spends More Time Online Than Caring For Children Affect Learning
Remember when Jessica, 24, broke our hearts in 2011 by quitting her classroom job to spend more time playing World of Warcraft? As it turns out, this single mom is doing more than just bad parenting. In this opinion piece for The Economist, Christopher Chabris, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, explains that spending more time in virtual worlds like video games can impair the social and academic development of young people.
Chabris doesn’t cast blame directly on Jessica; instead, he argues that many parents are guilty of repeating the same mistakes. “A lot of attention is paid to in-person interactions with children as a good sign of child and family well-being,” he writes. “But as a practical matter, when parents leave much of the child-rearing to other people—in our case, to family members—they tend to withdraw from the experience. By allowing their attention to be focused away from the child, parents’ associations may be limited to activities that are familiar and familiar to them, like spending time in conversation with their child, or attending church or school.” Chabris goes on to argue that although kids have a right to read, play, and socialize—and to good part of those things, since some recreational activities are actually healthy—these activities aren’t nearly as important as the extra social interaction that comes with playing nonstop games.
There are countless examples of parents over-scheduling their kids, and then rushing off to their jobs and home duties instead of actually interacting with them. “Education, and specifically social and emotional development, is especially difficult to perform in the presence of adults who are not behaving as peers,” Chabris argues. “Those who fail to cooperate with their children rather than ignore them should be greatly concerned by high levels of frequent attachment to screen time—primarily watching television and playing computer games.”
Despite the growing consensus that screen time is bad for our kids, most parents—though, at least a majority, according to a Pew Research Center survey—continue to use tablets and phones when they drop their children off at school. In the same survey, just 37 percent of American adults said their teenage children had told them about screen time usage, and only 26 percent said they’d talked to their teen about screens when they left the house.
Chabris points out that one of the most important reasons kids watch too much screen time is because they have little or no contact with their parents. But the fact that it’s hard to learn or socialize with a live human being doesn’t mean our kids don’t need that too. The language of learning, for example, relies heavily on those in the classroom or local school. “People do not learn about the workings of their brain and emotions simply by learning words in languages other than their own. A propelling force behind the learning of any language is live interaction with people. Not doing so and not maintaining a sense of connection with a local community is damaging to anyone’s brain development, whether or not that person lives in America, Europe, Asia, or Africa.”
Online games, he says, were invented “as a method for humans to avoid developing feelings and even to keep them safe,” and thus decrease their need for social interaction. At the very least, these devices can foster a less in-person relationship between human beings, and they are unlikely to be replaced by new “friending” apps. “The implications of this linkage go beyond how far engagement with in-person human experiences via the Internet should be reduced. We also have no hope of pursuing humane solutions to our deepest problems if we fail to approach them openly.”
The best thing a parent can do for his or her kids is “to spend their time with their children, not as distractions or an alternative to in-person contact, but as companions and partners in everyday social interactions,” he concludes. “Children need to understand that they do not know everything, and they mustn’t assume that all adults do. But the best thing an adult can do for a child is, more often than not, to focus their attention on a good partner instead of a video game.”