Coming to Our Senses: A Perspective on Childhood and Technology

By John Bloom

The young child is a gift to the world, a vulnerable and joyful work in progress so to speak. These days, the young child is also subject to intensive marketing, and is often viewed by the commercial world as a marketplace commodity, a once and future consumer. Modern media technology provides an effective delivery system for the latter while engaging the child’s natural interactive curiosity. There is no denying that technology, of course, gives us enormous benefits in an ever-evolving number of ways and that it is here to stay as an integral part of modern society. That said, I would ask you to step back with me and examine a deeper long-term consequence (beyond the content) of technological media exposure: the disruption of children’s developing senses. Out of respect for the capacities children bring as bearers of the future, we would be wise to protect them from the ease and onslaught of technology so that they can be free to develop their own “programs” (sensory and imaginative) in real time and space, through direct, unmediated experience.

The following statement characterizes one prevailing view: “New studies and pilot projects show smartphones can actually make kids smarter.” (From “A is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Educational Revolution,” by Anya Kamenetz, Fast Company, April 1, 2010). Do we truly believe that such achievements are accomplished by a machine? And what does “smarter” really mean? I have no doubt that some short-term performance outcomes can be achieved through interactions with technology, but is this real education or is it training for compliance? Children’s senses, sense organs (eyes, ears, etc), and neural pathways are continually forming physiologically until they are approximately nine years old. Each child gets to do this once, and the result, for better or worse, will be foundational for them through the rest of their lives. Young children arrive open to the world, naturally trusting, and dependent on the wisdom of the adult(s) caring for them. Because of this, technology that aims to entertain or teach is best held in abeyance until they have adequately developed to make good and self-guided use of technology’s gifts. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence to support this perspective (see www.allianceforchildhood.org).

Let me return to the issue of distinguishing between the mediated and unmediated experience, but from the perspective of the developing child. Up until the age of nine, children do not really see themselves as separate from the world or sense any distinction between kinds of experiences. They have experienced clues of separation along the way, such as the linguistic shift to the “I” pronoun at about three, but it is not until nine that they recognize and feel the differentiation. I remember the morning that my daughter (age nine) asked me with a quizzical look on her face, “Where do I go when I go to sleep?” She knew that she woke up in the same place she went to sleep, but also knew that she had gone somewhere. For the child, this is an emerging consciousness of their place in the world and a deep intimation that they are both part of the world and separate from other individuals at the same time.

Part of this early development process is the energizing of the child’s imagination. You can almost see a child form pictures as you verbally tell a story, and each child’s picture is particular to her or him. Each child is inwardly active in her or his own way. Several things happen when you show a child a movie of a story, instead of orally telling them the story. First, they are deprived of the opportunity to form their own pictures, and secondly, there is a homogenizing effect on their imaginations. Additionally, another more physiological consequence to their development occurs. Because their eyes are fixed on the flat screen, they have no need to engage the part of seeing that is learning to perceive depth, read the world, select what draws their attention— all those activities at the heart of the sense of sight, the formation of the human eye, and the process of seeing. Instead the film/filmmaker is doing all that work for them, and thus, rendering passive what, for the sake of development, needs to be active. This is not a question of the content of the film, which is yet another matter. The issue at hand is that we know a child’s own picture will be replaced by a mediated picture because he or she is so vulnerable to the influence of the world on the delicately forming senses. While an adult can distinguish between mediated and unmediated images, the young child cannot. These same inner developmental and physiological principles are true for all the other senses as well as for sight.

I have rarely seen a deep investigation of the effects of modern media technology on human sense development in popular literature. We are so focused on outcomes that virtually all discussion is based on a relatively limited definition of learning. What happens when a child has her or his own imagination of a story, or is free to play out of creative impulse, for example, is that she or he is forming their own unique neural networks and pathways. The inspiration from and through which they play is laying the foundation for what will emerge as imaginative thinking capacity when they reach high school age and beyond. But even more important, and to my mind the spirit of education itself, is that through “interacting” with the world in real time and space, each child is awakening to her or his individuality and intimations of purpose in the world. Growing up in today’s complex social and environmental reality is challenging enough; why would we want to diminish our children’s ability to fully develop the creative and critical capacities they will need to find their way?

John Bloom is Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance. If you enjoyed this post, look for John’s book, The Genius of Money, on steinerbooks.org.

The young child is a gift to the world, a vulnerable and joyful work in progress so to speak. These days, the young child is also subject to intensive marketing, and is often viewed by the commercial world as a marketplace commodity, a once and future consumer…

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