It’s hard to imagine a world where people weren’t actively talking, texting, and tweeting on digital devices. And yet, when we think of the “phone-bound,” we tend to imagine a horde of teens over-anxious to grow up. The truth is that children as young as six years old are being overexposed to digital media overload while their parents are just as consumed. And research is showing that outdoor playgrounds may be the key to turning the tide on family disengagement.
Digital Overload: Sucking the Soul Out of Family Time
In a shocking new study this week from VoucherCloud, over 2000 children were surveyed to find out what age they were when they received their first cell phone. The results? Over 50% of respondents said that they received their first cell phone before they were seven years old. And it’s not just cell phones. A majority of children surveyed said they had their own television (83%), tablet (75%), handheld game console (71%) and eBook Reader (65%).
Matthew Wood of VoucherCloud explained the results of the survey:
“Children have access to technology at younger and younger ages. It’s crucial that they use this technology in a way that doesn’t affect their normal social skills and growth.”
The problem is that digital overload isn’t just happening with kids. In an informal survey by researchers at Boston Medical Center, they found that almost 73% of parents would rather interact with their mobile device during mealtime than their children. This causes children to have a lot of negative emotions towards their parents and their devices. Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Children and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” found that children would regularly hide or steal devices in order to get their parents’ attention.
“We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them,” Steiner-Adair says.
Facebook as a Drug
Though children are being more engaged by digital media, so are their parents. This is leading to a state of familial disconnect that may have long-lasting and devastating consequences.
According a paper recently published in Current Psychiatry Review, addiction to online non-work-related activities like social media, videos, and gaming may affect more than 8% of the population. An additional survey published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that college students at Baylor University spend an average of 8-10 hours a day on their phones.
Getting rid of digital poison isn’t just a matter of “turning it off.” It’s about replacing the undesired behaviorss with ones that are more suitable. And some researchers are proving that playgrounds may be a good alternative to online compulsion.
Playground Therapy for Happier Families
Recently, Foresters and KaBoom! commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct a survey about how playground activity impacted family well-being. Over 1,100 parents of children between the ages of 2-12 were interviewed online about their feelings about how playground play affected their family’s overall happiness and strength of relationship. The results were astonishing. The Harris Interactive Survey found that:
- Parents who lived within walking distance of a playground talked with their children more regularly than those who did not.
- 95% of parents believe that a playground allows children to learn and grow.
- 88% of parents believe that playgrounds allow families to relax.
- 80% of parents believe that playgrounds help their family manage stress.
- Parents who live within walking or short driving distance of a park are more likely to report that their family spends time together.
Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D., developmental psychologist, and past children’s advisor to the White House suggests that the full impact of children-parent outdoor play has not been uncovered by researchers. Family bonding, to Erickson, is one of the most valuable reasons why nature play is a positive replacement for digital overstimulation. She says:
“Research has not looked specifically at a link between outdoor experience and quality of parent-child attachment, and certainly parents can be sensitive and responsive to their babies and young children indoors or out. But, in many ways, the natural world seems to invite and facilitate parent-child connection and sensitive interactions.”
In a world where digital overload is happening for both children and parents, outdoor play seems like a potential solution to improve the natural bond that exists in family units. Instead of just putting down the cell phone, tablet, or laptop, it’s time to get outside and engage in natural discovery and creativity. And research says: the playground is the perfect place to start.