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When the Virtual Becomes Real: Childhood Development In Age Of The Computer

Human beings are undoubtedly blessed with sophisticated cognitive skills that allow them to adapt to just about any environment. But this does not mean that all environments are equally appropriate. As physical, three-dimensional beings, it has been our ability to adapt to the natural world and to alter and reconfigure it to suit our needs that has been responsible for the most remarkable achievements of human society. We tend to think of better technology as the key to everything, but our technological success has depended on our unique ability to decode the deeper principles of science and to develop practical methods for putting that knowledge to good use.

In the minds of most, the arrival of the digital age represents the penultimate accomplishment of our multi-millennium quest to understand nature and to exploit and reshape it for our benefit. But there is an irony here; because our capacity to manipulate reality has reached such an advanced level, we now have it in our power to replace the natural world with virtual worlds that can recreate a good portion of normal human experience in a two-dimensional, artificial environment.

This might seem like an interesting observation but little more if we were proceeding slowly and cautiously into this brave new frontier. But amazingly, we have been throwing ourselves into this reality replacement project full bore and without restraint or reflection. As a result, we now have generations moving into maturity for which computer technology is as familiar as walking, breathing, and eating.

But walking, eating, and breathing involve essential biological processes and capacities. The virtual environments of the Internet, video gaming systems, iPads, and smart phones, on the other hand, are not natural in any way, and learning how to navigate in these artificial worlds has no connection with anything real or substantial, not as those terms are normally understood. In our ongoing love affair with digital communication and information sharing, we are teaching our children that artificial is better than natural, two-dimensional imagery is better than three-dimensional physicality, and  education with computers is better than the older ways of learning.

Most everyone is concerned about their children being exposed to age inappropriate material online, but few have expressed concerns about the possible negative effects of the technology itself.  With respect to television, social critic Marshall McLuhan observed long ago that “the medium is the message,” and this is even more true with computers, which, rather than simply masquerading as a form of entertainment, are also being used to completely transform the way we think, learn, study, work, move about, and interact with each other on a daily basis.

Voices In The Wilderness

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average youngster between the ages of eight and eighteen is spending seven and a half hours online, in front of the TV, or on a cell phone each day, which is the equivalent of about half their waking hours. While there is no doubt that computer technology can complement and enrich our lives significantly, like everything, they should be used in moderation and with a disciplined approach. But instead, we are creating whole generations of computer addicts who are becoming increasingly dependent on mediated, two-dimension forms of reality that excite and stimulate without really informing or educating. For those who grew up in an earlier time, before the advent of these ubiquitous digital technologies changed everything, it is easy to see new electronic technologies as helpful supplements that can make things more convenient and efficient. But for young people who have never experienced anything else, the digitalized virtual environments they are being immersed in have been made to seem more real than the world that actually created them in the first place.

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While it is amazing how rapid and thorough our takeover by computers has been, there are a few lone voices that have been trying to warn us that we are going too far and moving too fast. For example, Baroness Susan Greenfield, the former director of the prestigious Royal Institute and currently a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University in England, has been receiving a lot of attention internationally for her claims that overexposure to social networking sites, video games, and other virtual entertainments are leading to developmental problems in children and adolescents. Dr. Greenfield theorizes that constant immersion in two-dimensional simulated environments can actually rewire the human brain, and that by allowing the computerization of society to run rampant, we are creating a generation of young people with extremely short attention spans, an inability to concentrate or remember, a tendency to become frustrated and bored easily, and an overwhelming need for recognition and approval from others. Many have tried to dismiss Baroness Greenfield’s concerns because of the paucity of studies that back her claims, but ultimately this is all that she and others raising similar concerns are asking for, that more research into the effects of computer exposure on the brain be carried out so we can know for sure what we are getting ourselves into.

Over the years, there have been a few research studies performed that have linked excessive television watching with reduced mental and cognitive development. The German Psychological Institute conducted a twenty-year study involving 4,000 children who had been exposed to more than 5,000 hours of television by the age of six, and what they discovered is that these children had a significant decline in their ability to process and record sensory information, were less coordinated than most in their movement skills and ability to navigate in space, and had a difficult time synthesizing information in ways that would help them make sense of the chaos and confusion of the world around them. When these children were placed in rooms without any electronic media present for extended periods of time, they showed noticeable signs of boredom, irritability, and anxiety, just as you might expect from addicts who have been denied their drug of choice.

It is scandalous how little research has been done up to now that has included computers in the equation, but that is finally beginning to change. At the University of Bristol in England, a recent study revealed that children who spent more than two hours a day in front of either a television or a computer screen had a 60 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with psychological problems. Perhaps even more alarmingly, a Chinese study carried out by neuroscientists at several universities and hospitals found that teenagers who spent excessive amounts of time playing video games showed quantifiable signs of physical atrophy in several parts of their brains. Specifically, MRI scans revealed these young people were suffering damage in areas associated with concentration, memory, decision making, and goal setting, as well as in the section where messages are transmitted from one part of the brain to another, allowing for the synthesis of disparate bits of information into one coherent whole.

Keeping It Real

For those who doubt that too much time spent in the cyber-world is having a negative impact on our society, one of the best ways to monitor what is happening is to look at how people are actually behaving toward each other online, in forums, on blogs, in the comments sections of various websites, and on social networking destinations like Facebook and Twitter. If you take the time to wade through all of this muck, what you will find is that politeness and decorum have gone completely out the window, and that if someone were to judge this country based entirely by the way people behave online, he or she would conclude that we are the most angry, bitter, resentful, intolerant, bigoted, mean-spirited, frustrated, unpleasant, shallow, and small-minded society that has ever existed on the face of the earth.

This would not be accurate of course, at least not yet, but it provides a frightening picture of where we are all headed if we continue to replace real living in the real world with a virtual existence where our most narcissistic and detached tendencies are left free to run wild. Anyone who is not alarmed by the prospect of impressionable young minds being shaped in this kind of environment clearly needs to rethink their position. Young people need to learn how to relate to other people directly, face-to-face, and they need to know how to relate to the world in general as it actually is, and not the way it appears to be in an imaginary landscape where the normal limitations and rules don’t apply.

At this point, because so little research has been done it is impossible to say just how much exposure to computer-related technologies and the alternate realities they create should be considered appropriate for children. There is little doubt that as aids to the learning process, electronic media and digital technologies have much to offer, but it is more than a little disturbing that schools are rushing headlong into the age of digital education without even the slightest level of caution or restraint. If this continues, the time may come when the homeschooling option is the only realistic way to ensure that our children are getting the kind of diverse, complex, and grounded-to-reality education that is essential if they are to develop in the proper way. In the home environment, it is essential that parents limit the amount of time their kids are spending online, and it is equally important that they make sure their children are getting out of the house and out into the real world, where they can develop their natural abilities while learning the basic skills they will need to survive as they grow and mature into adulthood.

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