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Embracing a Play-Based Childhood in the Digital Age

Updated: May 29

Play Based Childhood int eh Digital Age

In the swiftly evolving landscape of modern childhood, the rise of digital devices has ushered in profound changes in how children engage with the world around them. Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, "The Anxious Generation," illuminates a worrying trend: from 2010 to 2015, coinciding with the widespread adoption of handheld devices among the youth, there has been a noticeable uptick in anxiety, depression, and mental health concerns with our young people. Our children are growing up with smartphones rather than in sandboxes. This means they are spending more time alone on devices as opposed to improving their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being, which only hours of play-based time with peers bring. The need to reassess and advocate for play-based childhoods has never been more critical.

"Parents are over-protecting kids in the real world and under-protecting them in the virtual world." - Jonathan Haidt

The Shift from Playgrounds to Pixels

Recent statistics present a stark picture: as smartphones became ubiquitous, the rates of mental health issues among young people surged. This correlation points to an uncomfortable reality where screens replace swings and social media supersedes social interaction in physical spaces. The constant connectivity offered by devices promotes isolation and tethering to virtual interactions.  Here are some interesting statistics about growing use on handheld technology and the increase in anxiety.

The Vital Role of Play

Play is not merely a leisure activity for children; it is a pivotal part of their social, educational, and emotional development. Play-based learning helps in a child's holistic development. It fosters creativity, encourages problem-solving skills, and improves physical health. Most importantly, it aids in the development of social skills - learning to negotiate, cooperate, and share, which are critical in forming healthy interpersonal relationships. Haidt writes,” Children learn through play to connect, synchronize and take turns. They enjoy attunement and need enormous quantities of it.  Attunement and synchrony bond pairs, groups and whole communities.”

Daily Average Time with Friends data

Contrastingly, a phone-based childhood often limits these developmental milestones. The digital interaction that replaces physical play is typically shallow and does not require the emotional and cognitive skills that real-world interactions do. Moreover, excessive screen time has been linked to various issues like reduced attention spans, hindered academic performance, and even disruptions in sleep patterns. As a result, children often have difficulty building resilience, developing coping skills, and learning how to overcome adversity without parental help.

The Risks of a Phone-Based Childhood

Jonathan Haidt’s observations suggest that a childhood dominated by digital devices may contribute significantly to the rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people. These devices can lead to an overreliance that fosters a sense of isolation and inadequacy, driven by the curated personas and lives seen on social media platforms.

There are four basic foundational harms to a phone-based childhood:

  • Social Deprivation:  As children moved from play-based interactions to phone-based interactions, the time spent with direct contact with peers plummeted 50% between 2012- 2019.

  • Sleep Deprivation: As our children moved onto phones and tablets, their sleep declined in quantity and quality.  Sleep has a direct impact on our mental health and ability to develop resilience.

  • Attention Fragmentation: Smartphones and their constant notifications have prevented our children from maintaining constant attention over long periods of time. Distraction inhibits their ability to maintain attention over long periods and interferes with executive functions.

  • Addiction: Behaviorists have learned that the developers of the most successful apps use the most advanced behavioral techniques to “hook” our children in and make them more dependent on their products.

Strategies for Encouraging Play-Based Childhoods

To counter the tide of digital dominance, here are five strategies that parents and schools can implement to promote a healthier, play-based environment for children:

1. Structured Tech Time: Implement rules that limit the use of digital devices, ensuring they are used appropriately without encroaching on time for physical play and face-to-face interactions.

2. Encourage Outdoor Activities: Schools and parents should organize and encourage participation in outdoor games and sports. These activities not only promote physical health, but also provide crucial social interaction.

3. Creative Play Spaces with Other Parents: Design and provide access to creative play spaces, both in schools and community centers. Spaces equipped with art materials, building blocks, and role-play costumes encourage imaginative and social play. Find other like-minded parents who want to establish a play-based childhood.

4. Educational Workshops for Parents and Educators: Conduct workshops highlighting the benefits of play-based learning and teaching strategies to integrate it into daily routines.

5. Policy Advocacy: Advocate for policies that recognize and support play as an essential part of childhood development. This can include funding for park renovations, more physical education in school curricula, and community events focused on family-based activities.

As we navigate this digital age, the importance of fostering a play-based childhood cannot be overstated. While technology undoubtedly brings benefits, it is crucial to balance these with the fundamental needs of a growing child. By encouraging more structured and unstructured play, we can help develop healthier, happier, and more well-rounded individuals. This shift might not only stem the tide of rising mental health issues, but also enrich the lives of our future generations.

If you have young children and found this information helpful, we strongly recommend you learn more by reading Jonathan Haidt's new book, "The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness."

Written by our Founder and Director, Gordon Gooding, LCSW along with Nicole Naggar, LCSW


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