The other day I was speaking to Juan Antonio Rodríguez Bueno, a rural teacher at the "Ramón y Cajal" Primary School in Alpartir (Zaragoza), about the idea, fast becoming taken for granted, that that children these days are digital natives. Juan Antonio is one of those teachers who has introduced technology and networks into the classroom in an intelligent, useful way, so he knows what he is talking about when he points out that it is not true that children are digital natives, and that in his own words:
“We do not consider them to be digital natives, in the same way as being among books does not make them readers. It is our job to educate them in digital matters in the same way as we work on reading or reading comprehension in the classroom. They do not acquire everything that the digital age implies by osmosis simply by being born into it. Some will learn alone, as with reading, but experience shows that that this is not the case, that technological and digital education is necessary."
However, while it is easy to understand the need to be accompanied through the routes to reading, it is difficult to make many adults understand that it is also necessary to be alongside the child in the process of learning to use and take advantage of technology. Furthermore, it seems that access (unaccompanied) to technology for minors is getting earlier and earlier and, in many cases, without the application of any criteria, but simply through a plunge into various screens (1), social networks, and a high degree of unbridled consumption and entertainment.
These days it is not difficult to see children (sometimes still in pushchairs) going along glued to the screens of mobiles, tablets or consoles (Nintendo, PSP, etc.) with the blessing of their parents. It is nothing new that parents use screens as nannies: the television has been the great nanny in many houses in recent years; adults who leave the children helpless in front of the screen so that it can "teach" them to be good consumers. It is alarming how responsibilities are abandoned by parents who, in many cases, feel that they can do nothing when faced with the technological avalanche, and say that "deep down, there is no problem".
From my point of view the problem is not the technology nor the screens, which are unquestionably great inventions; the problem is the use we are making of these screens and the often economic criteria which lurk behind this use; these criteria do not appear to be connected with making better, more critical or happier people, but are directed towards the desire to sell more and have more and better consumers (and, as a consequence, higher profit).
In my opinion to this lack of control in the use of screens by many children must be added the access, every day at an earlier age, and the enormous amount of time dedicated to these activities, time which the little ones are not using for something as fundamental as growth.
Children need to run in the street, they need to play with other children, touch each other, argue, engage in common projects, explore their territory, climb trees, fall over, laugh, cry, have adventures, play with sticks and stones, get muddy, wet their feet...children need to be children and go happily through childhood. Nothing is more important than play in order to enable strategies and resources which are essential for the development of the adult. However, it is more and more difficult to find spaces where childhood can be played out in that way. Every day there are more children enclosed in their houses and indiscriminately stuck to screens.
Perhaps we are not aware of the importance of those childhood years. Traditional games help to exercise the memory, promote body development, social interaction, attention...while interaction with screens, which is so addictive and against which many children are powerless, does not help at all with the establishment of the rudiments of, for example, attention or memory. Maybe that is why in recent years I have noticed an alarming fact when I tell stories in schools: surprisingly it is more and more difficult to tell stories to infants (3-6 years old), a group which are usually so receptive to a story, and on the other hand it is easy to tell stories to older pupils (for example those in sixth grade of primary school, 10-11 years old). I have been thinking about this question in recent months and have come to suspect that much of the blame for this new situation lies with the screens which children are coming to at an increasingly earlier age, and which do not allow the establishment of the strategies required for calmly paying attention and listening. This does not happen with older pupils, despite the fact that many of them are tangled up in social networks and on-screen games: perhaps this is because these older pupils were still able to enjoy so many thousands of days without a screen, and had sufficient time to learn how to pay attention and experience the world calmly.
The repercussions are significant; many children who are now small will perhaps not acquire the resources to, for example, enable them to experience deep reading. We also think that for many of us, adults with a long history as readers of paper books, the screen has also modified our way of reading: How many articles on the net have we abandoned half way through because they are "too long"?, How many posts do we recommend on Twitter or Facebook before we have finished reading them? How many times have we done what is now called transverse reading (which perhaps is a euphemism for not reading)? But the changes taking place in our times are more serious. There are those who defend this new way of reading as "more complete", although little or nothing is said about the need to cultivate deep, calm, critical reading, and in reality this is not taking place; continuous interaction is a constant yelling in our ear while we are reading, and produces in us a type of cognitive flitting. However, we need to be readers who are mindful and calm. This capacity to concentrate does not come naturally, and for that reason it is difficult to maintain and must be cultivated.
Perhaps it would be enough for the first few years of a child's life (let's say up to 10 years old) to be spent in childhood days full of games and the street, and well away from any device which starts with an "on" or a "play". Federico Martín Nebras, one of the gurus of reading encouragement in Spain, has been speaking about this for a long time, and his discourse, far from wilting, is every day taking root with more vigour among teachers and librarians.
There is in addition another question which is far from trivial: human beings are different from animals in that they need to feed on fiction. The works of fiction that have traditionally been among the main dishes on the menu have been stories told orally, and for the last few centuries they have also been stored on the paper memory permitted by books.
This type of fiction is nutritious, it enriches us, and it grows from the inside outwards. One can tell a story, and whoever is listening builds castles, forests and dragons in the imagination. However, the fiction that we are consuming more and more is that of the screen, a fiction which, as opposed to that of the story, is an impoverishing or, more exactly, colonizing fiction. The fiction coming to us with images is installed within our imagination, and there is no way to remove it from there. The power of these images is so strong and evocative that companies spend years trying to associate their logos with positive images (something which they achieve) installed within us. In that respect a careful reading of this book is worth the effort: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander.
Finally, before drawing conclusions and ending this article which is becoming long, I wish to mention one final point. Children, today as always, need to be told stories; a lot of them. Some time ago I spoke about some of the reasons for stories, but there are more, many and very interesting reasons to get back time and space for storytelling in the home, time and space for coexistence. As an example I recall Inno Sorsy who, years ago, told us at an unforgettable conference about how the internal structures of traditional tales are the same as the internal structures of human thought: the more we go through the gymnastics of telling/listening to stories, the more we are exercising our capacities of reasoning and thought.
I am more and more convinced that we have to protect childhood from interactive screens, and we have to allow the little ones to fill their first years with the street, with play, with the group, the community, songs and stories; an abundance. And after that stage (nine or ten years) we have to accompany them by applying criteria and care to the learning process regarding technology. They will be fed up of working with computers and screens, and they will be stuck to their smartphones day and night. They will be sick of seeing their reflections in screens at all hours. But if they had the opportunity to spend brilliant days during childhood they will always be able to gaze through the window and remember that the clouds are shaped like birds, or hearts, or the ship of Peter Pan.
In some talks for an adult audience I have asked if anyone knows any poetry. In nearly every case the verses recited were learned as children. However, many of today's little ones do not have the opportunity to learn poems or stories at home; they spend a large part of their day in front of the screens to which they hand over their time. What memories, what verses, what stories will they be able to remember when they are adults after these days not lived?