Moving from Screen to Green

Photo Courtesy Chetan Kharkhani

Adil Basha shares his concern about screen technologies which cause high arousal and turn children into addicts who suffer various health syndromes and lose out on healthful outdoor and community activities.

My seven-year-old niece possesses several stuffed toys – a snake, a bear, a giraffe and a monkey. She watches Lion King on a giant LED TV and dances to Baloo’s ‘bare’ necessities.  She has an iPad on which she flings irate looking birds onto brick and mortar. She can recognize nearly every animal in her latest flipbook.

She has never seen a butterfly in her life!

Living on the 19th floor of a gigantic apartment complex, her only real contact with nature involves a fleeting sight of a bee causing her to scream or a chance sighting of a pigeon perched on the balcony that she is led to believe will aggravate her wheezing and spread deadly diseases. Forget nature deficit disorder, nature dread is the disorder of the day. And the bee wasn’t even a bee. But I wouldn’t blame her – four out of ten children today cannot tell a bee from a wasp.

Illustration by Soloyonestor

What does it mean when children are prolific at playing Temple Run and yet cannot name five species of trees around them? When an average kid (8-18 year olds) spends 7.5 hours per day staring at electronic screens? When 50% of teens are sleep-deprived? That obesity rates among children are shooting up in every part of the world?

Children today are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. This trend seems to be universal, with Americans spending an average of 13 hours per week playing video games. In Britian, smartphone ownership amongst 12-15 year olds is at a staggering 62%. Back home, India has around 11 million gaming PCs with the gaming industry currently worth $250 million.

Video games and the mind

Several scientific studies have suggested that playing excessive computer games can have a detrimental impact on the brain. Baroness Greenfield, British scientist, member of the House of Lords and researcher on neuroscience of consciousness, says that spending too much time staring at screens can cause physical changes in the brain that lead to attention and behaviour problems. “Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn triggers the brain system’s primary addiction and reward system, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity. Technology that plays strongly on only two senses – like video games – can literally “blow the mind” by temporarily or permanently deactivating certain nerve connections in the brain.” Now consider the fact that the average child will spend almost 2000 hours a year in front of a screen between their tenth and eleventh birthdays.

Video games and the body

Playing video games involves spending considerable amount of time staring at an electronic screen. The human body isn’t built for such a lifestyle. Maintaining a sitting posture for long periods of time is not only unnatural but also unhealthy. And this kind of posture results in syndromes that seem to be widely prevalent these days. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, High-Tech Health Syndrome that causes eyestrain, dizziness, headaches, low energy, and neck, back, shoulder pain and Computer Eye Syndrome which causes headaches, blurred vision, neck pain, redness in the eyes, fatigue and double vision.

Spending more time sitting down also has a major impact on the body’s metabolic system. Studies have found that kids and teens who spend hours sitting in front of a screen each day are more likely to gain weight as they age. Major health effects have also been linked to sitting time including type 2 diabetes and cardio vascular diseases. And what has been the obvious result of such a lifestyle? The percentage of young people in the United States who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. Back home, India is expected to have 100 million diabetics by 2030.

Moving from screen space to green space

Isaac Asimov’s story It’s such a beautiful day sketches a future in which people stay indoors all their lives. Kids go to school through doors that take them from their homes, to school. Virtual reality is everything, and physical contact is looked down upon. Also, the word for ‘outdoors’ doesn’t exist. In this world, a kid’s ‘door’ malfunctions while going to school, and he’s thrown ‘outside’. He experiences things like rain, and looks at his own house from outside for the first time in his life. He starts skipping school to go outside, until his terrified mother is forced to consult a psychiatrist. The kid takes the psychiatrist outside to prove to him that he’s telling the truth. When the doctor sees it, he is so transformed that he promises to go outside with the kid secretly, knowing that his mom will never allow it.

This was written in 1954. How far are we really from this ‘future’ that Asimov describes? Kids sit in a school bus, go to school, sit in a class, come out and sit in a bus again to go back home and sit inside a room. Life is lived in boxes with doors. The ‘future’ arrived sometime in the past few decades and we haven’t even blinked.

But then I ask myself, do the outdoors really exist in today’s cities? Is there nature in a city? Isn’t the air  heavy with carbon monoxide? Aren’t the roads accident – prone? Isn’t it better for children to be ‘safe and sound’ inside their apartments?

Well the answer is yes, yes, yes, and an emphatic NO! Outdoors exist in today’s cities. There is a rich urban ecology present in most cities. Hundreds of species of trees, plants, animals and birds co-exist with us in a city. Our willingness to ignore them doesn’t make them invisible. There is nature in the city as long as one is willing to shift perspective from the shiny neon lights to the Gulmohars. Yes the air in a city is polluted, but if you think staying indoors switching on ACs can make it all right, think again. Indoor air is far more toxic than outdoor air owing to air pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and radiations. Most indoor air pollutants are proven or suspected carcinogens. And yes roads are more accident-prone but there is strength in numbers. And therein lies the key: in building community.

Building community

The concern with communicating primarily electronically is the absence of context. Without contextual knowledge from those receiving their messages, it is difficult for children to learn how to share effectively in a group. Studies show that spending time outside helps children build social bonds. Researchers have also found that kids who play together and organize games experience a constructive way to avoid social isolation.

Letting children learn from experience gives them the opportunity to feel the texture of Nature by appealing to all the five senses and even more. Nature has her own touch screen, tone, hues and her own taste, odours, and character. Some of these you can never experience from an electronic device!

Benefits of outdoor play

Most of the benefits are pretty obvious: fresh air, more exercise (and a lower chance of obesity), experiences of playing and getting along with others and a sense of belonging to a community.

According to one study, children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, while another demonstrates the connection between playing in the dirt and rising serotonin levels (the brain’s “happy chemical”). Making direct contact with soil, whether through gardening, digging for worms, or making mud pies has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning.

For the one last time, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate and ask, why do children need to be outdoors if majority of their adulthood will be spent indoors hypnotized by an electronic screen? Lion cubs certainly don’t spend their time reading Tolstoy or learning to paint, they learn how to hunt, watching their parents and playing among themselves.

That’s an easy one. Every child has the right to learn from experience and has to learn to adapt to the depression of impending isolation, if that’s her/his future. Or maybe the future won’t be as dystopian, and children will need all the skills and experience of living in an ‘outdoor’ world, in a low carbon, low technology culture.

Either way,  our role in this revolution is clear. Switch off the screen and go outside. Take a trip to the butterfly park maybe…

Adil Basha


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