I was listening to a story on NPR the other evening about children using at-home digital assistants and the blurred line of technology versus friend, and all I could think about was the short story by Ray Bradbury (one of my all-time favorite authors) “The Veldt”.
If you’ve never read it, allow me to give you a very short summary: a family who owns a technologically advanced home realize that their kids have become spoiled and too attached to their nursery. They’re advised to turn the house off and get away for a few days by their psychologist, but the children, who have kept their nursery stuck on a very eerily realistic veldt complete with hungry lions, are incredibly against it. Right before they’re to leave, the kids ask if they can spend some time in the nursery, and the parents oblige. When the parents hear the kids yelling for them, they run upstairs to the nursery where the kids lock them inside. By the time the psychologist gets to the house to take them away for the weekend, all he finds is the kids sitting in the nursery eating sandwiches while he sees the lions eating two figures in the distance.
Okay, so it’s hard to really understand how the nursery is the veldt and where the lions come in and the overall sinister feeling of it all without actually reading the story, but I feel like you get the gist in that the family has relied on technology so much that the kids are psychologically altered by their dependence on it.
Digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home are a far cry from a digital nursery that can change to whatever or wherever you want it to be, but in the NPR report, they were talking about how kids don’t have a firm grasp on the difference between a piece of technology that they can interact with, and a real-life friend. They say that there’s a concern that children will forgo forming actual, meaningful relationships because they’re getting all that they think they need from a program whose only purpose is to interact with you. But what happens when that “friend” is taken away?
As you may know, I am not a parent, nor do I plan to be, so my opinion and knowledge of “screen time” is very limited. I do know, having taught preschool for two and a half years, that as a whole, the best way children learn is to do things themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that everyone learns and interacts differently. That being said, children – especially small children – don’t have the full capacity to separate what they see on a screen from real life.
Technology is a fact of our lives. It’s not going anywhere, and despite what some believe, has vastly improved both the quality of life and the way we understand and interact with the world around us. With the click of a button or the swipe of a finger, I can be interacting and forming relationships with people from the other side of the world. And I have. I can have a video chat conversation with my friend Aarti in Singapore or my husband can play video games online with his friends in the UK. It has brought this big ol’ planet a lot closer and it’s supremely comforting to know that if I ever found myself in those places, I would have a bed (or couch or floor) to sleep on.
So, when we consider that Google Home or Alexa are taking the place of actual friends for some children, while things like Instagram, Facebook, and XBOX Live are allowing us to create real, lasting relationships with people in time zones 6+ hours ahead of us, how do we decide what the limit is? How do we make the distinction ourselves whether technology is hurting or helping us? And at what point does the state of our mental health come into the conversation?
I’m so interested to hear (read) your thoughts on this, and to know, if you heard the same NPR story, did you get that same strange feeling as I did?