Moderation is the Name of the Game: Balancing the World of Technology with the World of Nature

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

I think it’s fair to say that personal computers have become the most empowering tool ever created. They’re tools of communication, they’re tools of creativity, and they can be shaped by their user.

– Bill Gates.

Last week we had a power outage that plunged our whole neighbourhood into darkness for the entire night. As we had no electricity or gas, we could only use the light of flickering of candles to help us manoeuvre our way around in the pitch dark. The positive side of this minor disaster was that there was no TV, no R&B or rap music, no popping sounds from the Facebook chat, no computers or computer games. There was only the sound of the wind blowing through the trees outside and the opportunity to see a crescent moon silently rising in an indigo-coloured sky not veiled by the city lights. It made me acutely aware of how intrusive our world of technology can be.

Night sky

Fortunately, many families have the opportunity during the summer months to spend some time away from their habitual urban lives. Children go with their families on camping tours, trips to the seaside or to foreign countries, or off on their own to summer camps. These adventures enable families to relax and feel closer to each other as they escape the technology filled world that we live in today.

Why do we want to escape the world we live in? We enjoy our computers for many reasons. They are such a phenomenal wealth of information and communication. We are able to communicate with our friends all over the world within minutes. And we anxiously await the news from friends, often checking emails several times a day. We can learn the news of any moment in history in a matter of seconds. We have the newspaper and the encyclopaedia rolled into one at the mere touch of our fingertips. Then we have our mobile/cell phones. In the UK the statistics are that 84.49 per 100 people have mobile phones. In the USA it’s 48.81 per 100 people who have cell phones. We have barely bought a new phone with bells and whistles when another one comes out with different bells and louder whistles. The shiny all-singing, all-dancing gadget has become so sophisticated that we might as well be carrying a tiny computer around where ever we go. In fact many cell phones have all the capacities of computers. Parents do appreciate them because they have the assuredness of finding out where their children are so easily, and we consider it a safety precaution for the young.

Research tells us about the good news regarding the accessibility of information with access to the internet. It has been a huge blessing for some. People with a variety of disabilities have been able to access programs that help them to learn things they never thought possible. Research also indicates that the brain is activated in a positive way with many of the video games that young people play. There are games that help memory and even social skills. There is the possibility that a child’s decision-making skills, logical thinking skills, memory and problem solving skills can all improve with the use of these games. Many educational companies are working round the clock to come up with games and interactive materials that will help children with arithmetic and literacy. Just yesterday, retired Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor was talking about her efforts to produce video games that will help young people learn and understand the history and politics of America and other democratic societies.

Scientific studies have also shown us the bad news about technology. The problems with technology appear with children when they are addicted to texting their friends or playing video games on computers or mobile phones. There are many children who develop challenging behaviours, as they don’t want to do what they are asked to do in school or at home. The classroom becomes unbearably boring. It seems too slow to them. They are impatient with teachers and parents. Some develop anti-social behaviours and others develop physical problems such as back and posture issues or tendonitis.

In an article by Dr Joe Dispenza on the hazards of technology, he states that when children are playing computer games “The continuous release of chemicals on the nerve cells’ receptor sites finally causes the receptors to become desensitized to the same level of the chemical rush. Attention spans inevitably will shorten for the gamer who sits in the classroom trying to pay attention to a topic that doesn’t turn his brain on or make his body feel alive. As the young brain goes through withdrawal in the classroom, the perfect stimulation might be to cause trouble by acting out. Getting in trouble causes high adrenal activity and, unconsciously, the child is making the brain turn on again to provoke similar chemical releases as gaming provides. Fidgeting, falling asleep, interruptions, emotional outbursts, provocative and disrespectful comments are all side-effects of attention problems. It isn’t too difficult to reason the etiology in a child with no genetic history of AD/HD, no head injury and no exposure to toxicity”.

Parents may have to do some serious thinking about their views on the pros and cons of technology so that they can speak to their children rationally about a world where moderation in all things is a wise way to approach life.  If reading material is available in the home such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian, or children’s books depicting the biographies of people who have shaped our world (e.g. inventors, scientists, artists, writers, actors, sports-persons and other achievers), children can learn the many different natural, historical and artistic paths available to them. They can always go to the internet for further reading and understanding of what interests them, but parents must take them to the actual places of nature, art and history if they want them to be stimulated by something other than the computer.

Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Functional brain scans of children who have autistic spectrum disorders reveal how they have an over focused frontal lobe which enables them to lower the volume and virtually disassociate from other people in their environment. They become hyper focused on obsessive interests. For many this is often associated with computers, thus, we ask the question about how much computer screen time should children have? The following opinions are from two adults with ASD.

Pauline: Adult with ASD and mother of 6 children

Technology is a necessary evil for our kids and indeed ourselves nowadays. I personally find that technology helps my everyday life immensely and I speak as an adult with ASD. I am very visual and hands on, so I gain more from the interactive environment of a computer than I do from many a text book (with the odd exception of mathematics, odd in as much as a computer is based in maths!).

In my opinion children should be exposed to technology early on. In the very early years it is a good way (with the right software) to learn cause and effect. For example, if I do this, that will happen; this is an important life lesson and can’t start too young. When a child reaches school age technology should gradually become a tool rather than a means of achievement, it is then more important to learn to manually learn the skills needed to read and write as technology is a dependent medium (a computer is useless without an agent to input data).

The exceptions come into play when a child has a disability. Technology can help a compromised child show what is inside them with minimum manual dexterity and this is a very important consideration. Without assistive technology we would not benefit from the thoughts of people such as Stephen Hawking at the top end and a child able to “talk” to the important people in their lives at the other end.

Gaming can also be incredibly educational if used appropriately, it teaches hand-eye coordination and thought processes. No child should be babysat by a gaming machine, however, and parents should be aware of what type of game their child is playing as unfortunately some less desirable things can be taught either openly or subliminally. In conclusion, my thought is that technology has a very important place in our lives and children should be exposed to it but not in place of traditional learning and learning mediums.

Josh, Young Adult with Asperger Syndrome

I believe that technology can be a gateway to communication for children and adults on the Autistic Spectrum. For several decades, the computer has been a tool for communication, today everyone uses e-mail. More recently, the internet has also become a tool for social communication. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and instant messaging applications such as MSN messenger, have all had a surge in popularity, and not just from teenagers – it is now common place for adults to have social networking accounts. This has provided people on the spectrum with a “normal”, yet easy to use medium for communication.

Taking the example of MSN messenger, you are able to talk with someone, in real time, without having to worry about eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. This means we are able to focus on the conversation, and not on trying to actively interpret what all this non-verbal communication actually means. This can be a great relief. ‘Emoticons’ or ‘smilies’ such as :-P and :-) and others have also simplified emotion. People often use these to explicitly state their emotion when on-line, which again makes life much easier for those on the spectrum.

There are some drawbacks, however. It is becomingly increasingly common that children on the spectrum see social networking and instant messaging as an alternative to real life social interaction, rather than as a supplement. When this happens, it can result in an unhealthy obsession and the individual becoming more isolated. There is also limited opportunity to learn social skills over the internet, yet they are still required (to some extent), for digital interaction. This means that users need to have had “real world” interaction, before they can take full advantage of social digital communication. Individuals lacking these social skills could easily be targeted, or through lack of social understanding, by internet bullies.

In conclusion, I believe that the internet can be an amazing tool for individuals with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. However, this use is not a replacement for in person social interaction, and must always be seen as a supplement.

Everything in excess is opposed to nature

-Hippocrates

In summary, the world of technology is here to stay, but moderation is the name of the game and therefore as parents you need to monitor your child’s use of technology. Use the computer with your children so that they include you in their games and computer activities. This will help your child see that you are on the same team not opposing teams. Ask your child to help you when he/she knows something that you don’t about the computer. It will make your child feel happy and competent if he/she can teach you something new.

Parents also have to practice what they preach and make an effort to spend quality time with their children enjoying outdoor activities, exercise, books, museums etc. Provide as many opportunities as possible so that your child will grow up with a repertoire that includes the stars that are light years in one direction and the oceans’ floors which are still a deep mystery in the other direction.

Father and son fishing

Tips for balancing the world of technology with the world of nature:

  1. Go to the zoo.
  2. Get kid’s books on Kindle to enhance personal knowledge and academic achievement
  3. Explore some of the best educational sites on the net: http://kids.allmyfaves.com/ and http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/
  4. Adopt a pet.
  5. Learn the names of birds that fly along the river.
  6. Walk together in the evening and watch for the foxes.
  7. Keep live plants in the house and let your child own a plant to water and care for.
  8. Reduce unproductive screen time.
  9. Plan for ‘down time’ for your child.
  10. Allow time for relaxing and ‘hanging out’, as opposed to over scheduling time. A child’s choice of how to spend ‘down time’ is important in developing self-reliance.
  11. Go to a symphony, an opera, or science museum for a special occasion.
  12. Use websites to help children draw and colour. http://www.crayola.com/coloring_application/
  13. Go to an art museum and focus on one or two particular artists.
  14. Take a class together where you and your child learn about nature, animals, art or music.

Dr Patricia Papciak loves to go up to a cabin in northern California to get away from the hurried pace of life. The cabin is without any modern amenities. Here she saw an elk grazing near a serene lake while on holiday there.

Elk grazing near a lake

Calling All Parents! Can You Help?

We are researching how computer games can help kids with ASD and or ADHD develop better social skills. If you have a child who struggles in this area, please download the questionnaire which contains a link to where your child can play a fun computer game. As a parent we would appreciate it greatly if you would answer a short questionnaire to help us develop a different game that focuses on positive social language and interaction. Thanks in advance for any support you can lend us as we do a preliminary study.

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