My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the consequences of ‘modern’ life

Yesterday’s UK Telegraph printed an open letter from numerous academics, professionals, and artists concerned about the health of youth. The piece, signed by hundreds, is called: Modern life leads to more depression among children:

Sir – As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.
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Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.

This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.

Given the British slant of this, i’m kinda surprised to not see David Buckingham on the list of signers. His book After the Death of Childhood: Growing up in the Age of Electronic Media deals directly with this issue, showing both positives and negatives of contemporary society.

I strongly support this letter. I believe that discourse about the state of children’s health is desperately needed. The issue is complex – it is not a matter of just taking away junk food or banning TV; it is about rethinking the child-raising process at all levels. It is also not something that just pertains to psychology, but also to sociology, anthropology, economics, media studies, politics, education, etc. There are scholars researching many components of this but the issue itself extends far beyond the academy. I’m concerned that the media has defined the concerns and that there is too little discussion between scholars and the public at large. I would *love* to see this change.

One concern i had in reading this letter is that i fear people will interpret it to mean that technology is bad bad bad. (For that reason, i bolded two parts that i think highlight key sites of trouble in our society.) By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general. TV is allowing children to have desperately-needed downtime, the Internet provides them with the a place to hang out amongst their friends when they are locked into their nuclear family residences. If we take their plea seriously (and i hope we do), i think that it’s important to put down our adult biases, our technophobia, our xenophobia, and our parental fears to think about youth’s worlds from their point of view.

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12 comments to the consequences of ‘modern’ life

  • Thanks for highlighting this issue danah… also, Anna Quindlen has a terrific essay about a related topic in the current issue of Newsweek. The essay, “Frightening and Fantastic”, is about the parental culture of fear that is dominating (for the worse) young adult’s perception of the social world. I’m glad to see this issue getting some traction.

  • Jon Moter

    I love that right after the line:

    “They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.”

    there is the string “advertisement”.

    🙂

  • Michael Chui

    By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general.

    Thank you for saying that; I was preparing to comment as soon as I finished reading to say pretty much exactly what you did there. That’s probably the most important point…

    Typical role models seem to have willingly abrogated their involvement, then turned around and blamed their replacements.

  • By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us –

    Thank you! I can’t count the times people have said that technology is bad. But for the most part, it is filling the gap. Maybe playing on facebook, or even writing in the blog isn’t ideal, but it does fill the gap.

    How many times do students hear that we should use tools available to us? That’s what I think many of my peers are doing (myself included).

  • From my post on the same article:

    In my opinion, the abundance of opportunities for parents in privileged countries is seriously affecting the dynamic of the relationship with their children, often times exposing them to untested methods. The paradox of abundance is well illustrated by the common metaphor of the ‘rich spoiled kid’, but we seem to have grown apathetic to such wisdom. We are all richer and we are spoiling our kids, but fail to see anything wrong with it. In a culture of consumism, the only winners are the corporations profiting from the growing obsession to care for our children through products and services that have little to do with their most basic needs to be nurtured and allowed to discover the world at their own pace.

  • Utterly fascinating to me is the pervasive view that what the adults create for youth beginning at a very young age – rigorous content testing, hyper-competitiveness, modelling of consumerism, drive to over-achieve – is considered “good,” while what the youth create for themselves – especially in the context of cyber-presence – is considered “bad.” In society’s rush to “think of the children” (sorry for the gross generalization) relatively few who make policy are actually thinking about the children. It is tremendous that these British thought leaders are doing just that.

  • We first have to ask ourselves: why is there a gap to be filled? What is wrong with the American (and British) family that people have all these holes in their lives waiting to be filled by TV and MySpace?

    Not only do kids need unstructured time alone and with their peers – they need it most of all with their parents.

    I’m raising my half-Italian daughter in Italy, where a big feature of almost every kid’s life is lots of time with the family – meals, family outings, family vacations well into their 20s. Many of my daughter’s (high school age) friends are now going on exchange programs in the US. One recently told Ross that the only thing she doesn’t like about her American family is that they never eat together – everyone just grazes from the fridge whenever they’re hungry. She said she misses the daily opportunity to discuss things with her parents. (Which is ironic, given that relations with her parents have been, by Italian standards, fairly strained in the last couple of years, and the word “discutere” in Italian can mean discussion or argument!)

    Seems to me American parents are looking for institutions (government, schools) to do their parenting for them, e.g. making sure their kids don’t see any nipples on TV, and completely abdicating their own role as parents.

  • Not that I disagree with the overall message, but this one line strikes me as odd.

    “Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change.”

    Children, from my experience are much better at adapting to the effects of rapid technological and cultural change than adults are.

  • Thanks for posting the article. It makes me feel like less of a failure.

  • Another thanks for posting this article. The Dalai Lama spoke with a panel of leading educators around the topic of Educating the Heart, social and emotional development. It was open to the public and is available in webcasts.http://www.dalailamacenter.org/multimedia/index.php

    This was part of the kick off for a new center, The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. It feels like this line of conversation with researchers, educators, and policy makers is growing right now… or that’s my optimistic thinking!

  • This is a little more on point in relation to my concerns on adolescents, “modern life,” the body and youth culture. There’s such potential in technology, esp. Web 2.0 hype, but I can’t escape the feeling that things are too late given how fast society & tech. now moves.

    The one area where I have hope is in the work Jane is doing re: games, but it’s unclear how big that can grow.

  • Dick Stainy

    David Buckingham? You mean Beckham?