It's time to encourage our children to log off and explore the real world

In the rush to embrace digital technology, we must not neglect the many valuable lessons to be learned from analogue experience

Close up of elementary student typing text message on smart phone while sitting at the desk in the classroom.
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Last week, Jameela Al Muhairi, UAE Minister of State for Education urged parents to ban digital games and to encourage young children to play outdoors more. Her concern is that digital technology is negatively impacting children's ability to explore their wider surroundings and to learn through the rough and tumble of real-world experience.

I share the Minister's worries. There is little doubt that over-reliance on digital technology at a young age is associated with problems in social, emotional and cognitive development. What is more, by their very nature, we cannot know the long-term developmental impact of new technologies until their effects can be seen.

My handwriting is atrocious and my spelling is pretty abysmal too. I was an early adopter of personal computing, and as soon as I could convince an adult to buy me one, all my writing was done on a digital word processor with an inbuilt spell checker. I have never looked back. Give me a pen and some paper and it is obvious that my over-reliance on technology, at a relatively young age, has resulted in a mild case of acquired dysgraphia.

I can live with my messy handwriting and embarrassing spelling − the costs are not that great. I was about 12 when I got my first digital device, but back then bikes, balls and fishing rods were still the mainstay of my recreational life.

Today, however, a child’s first and favourite toy is likely to be some form of tablet. When my daughter was three years old, I saw her fast asleep, cuddling my iPad as though it were a teddy bear. Heartbreaking. It appears that younger and younger children are spending increasingly protracted periods glued to digital devices. In the absence of parental intervention, I suspect we will end up with something far worse than a generation of adults with poor handwriting.

Research on this topic published earlier this year in the academic journal Addictive Behaviors points to a relationship between "problematic" or excessive use of technology – including social media and digital games − and depressive symptoms among young people. The same body of research also reports similar relationships between problematic technology use and social anxiety, decreases in academic performance, reduced sleep quality and poorer physical health.

One study published earlier this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that more frequent smartphone use, as indicated by the number of times the screen was unlocked each day, was associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety among participants. Another study, published in the same journal in 2017, looked at smartphone use among children aged between one and six years − yes, it's hard to believe, but some parents give toddlers smartphones as a form of digital pacifier. This study found that the younger the child, the more likely they were to engage in problematic or excessive smartphone use. This finding was attributed to younger children's lower levels of self-control.

Like many of the children involved, the research into this area is still in its infancy. Further studies are required to untangle whether this relationship is causal: does using such technologies cause ill effects, or are we, for example, using these technologies as an unsuccessful attempt to manage our pre-existing low moods?

As this story plays out, I believe that the wise thing to do would be to moderate technology use. I recently observed an excellent example of this in an unexpected context.

Last winter, in my capacity as a psychology professor at Zayed University and in pursuit of vitamin D, I taught one of my classes outdoors. There were not enough chairs to go around, but I was surprised at how many of the students were entirely comfortable sitting on the ground, cross-legged, with ballerina-straight spines.

Chairs have been around so long that we might not consider them to be a technology, but they are, and those of us who have relied on them from a young age might struggle to sit comfortably, self-supporting, on the ground for an extended period of time.

It turned out that, at home, many of my students often sat on the floor. Several mentioned rooms such as the majlis, in which seating is floor-based or a mixture of chairs and floor. Others mentioned occasions − communal meals, for example – in which sitting on the floor is the done thing. The familial message seems to be: embrace the chair, by all means, but don't forsake the ground.

We would be wise to adopt a similar approach to digital technology: play onscreen games, have online chats and read websites, but not to the extent that our ability to perform the equivalent tasks offline is compromised. Whatever age we happen to be, there are clear benefits to establishing certain times of the day or particular rooms in the house as zones where we can take a break from the blinking screens and constant flow of information that characterise the digital age in which we live.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University