Books are bad for you!

The primary criticism we hear about technological entertainment is that it is ‘anti-social’. I’ve also heard people insist that it makes people ‘less creative’.

When it comes to parenting advice it’s hard to ignore the growing idea that ‘Technology is BAD!’.

We seem to have a very different view when it comes to reading. It’s not a screen, it’s a ‘traditional’ form of entertainment, and it has a well-recognised link to creative and critical thought. All good, wholesome stuff, surely?

I’m not going to trawl the data running pros against cons. Instead I’ll share a very odd encounter I had with my wife’s grandmother. It was a few months ago and both my sons were fully absorbed in activities on separate hand-held devices. I felt the familiar squeamish sense that most modern parents probably feel; my children were ignoring guests in favour of their tech!

I was about to take their devises away when their great-grandmother looked at them with a smile: “It’s just lovely to see them like that.”

“Books are bad for you.”

It threw me into a sharp mental u-turn. She explained that as a child she was often criticised for her love of reading as it was ‘anti-social’. For some it was even seen as a waste of time, many told her that she should be doing something more ‘productive’. In short, she was told ‘Books are bad for you’. She looked at my sons’ use of tech as being equally beneficial to her childhood reading.

Penguin books began in 1935 and with the help of Woolworths, it pushed the notion of mass-market paperbacks into the public consciousness. It’s hard to speculate what the overall opinion of this new influx of books would have been even decades later but I imagine it would still be quite a new thing to see children in all walks of life sitting reading.

Computer games have been around since the seventies but the hand-held game didn’t appear in the mass market until I was a child (the late 80s early 90s). Even then it was only my ‘rich’ friends who had one. They were still a luxury and by no means ubiquitous.

Since then hand-held devices have grown cheaper and more accessible. Their capacities have grown more diverse as well, as they come to serve an increasingly social and educational role (Gameboys didn’t let you chat to your friends after dinner, and to the best of my knowledge Mario never helped any of my friends with their homework). This sort of tech has a lot going for it.

Even the gaming itself has come to offer more depth, with more demands on critical thought, and on creative energies. Should we be so quick to condemn these glowing rectangles that now permeate our lives?

Where’s the harm?

There’s clear evidence that the actual light generated by screens can have a detrimental effect on sleep patterns, but at the end of the day doesn’t all artificial light? Gaming is also known to increase serotonin levels to a degree that can trigger addictive behaviours. This isn’t good and I’m sure I see a degree of this in my own children, but the same jittery, manic effect can be achieved with a big bag of sweets sneaked in by Granny.

I’m not going to say screens are perfect (and as an author I obviously have a vested interest in getting people to read books) but I can’t help but wonder if we’re vilifying the tech rather than turning the lens on ourselves as parents.

At the end of the day my own interest in my facebook/twitter feed, my blog reader stats, or even my work e-mails, will have its own (fairly large) part to play in any detrimental technological experiences that my children have.

It’s not the zombie in their game that will do them the most harm, it’s the zombie on the couch beside them. He doesn’t demand ‘brains’ but instead insists ‘I can’t just now, I have to answer this e-mail’. It is here that technology does the most harm to a child’s development, and the solution is blindingly simple (though it will make most of us uncomfortable to admit it).

Does my out-of-hours attention to my e-mails etc. mean my kids will grow up thinking that they should never have ‘down-time’? Does my own interest in social media make it look like ‘likes’, ‘followers’, and ‘shares’ are of equal importance to real-world feedback? Tech isn’t to blame for this, it’s me. Tech isn’t bad, books aren’t bad, it’s the lack of family engagement and shared interests that does the most harm.

I’m off to read with my kids now. If you’d like to do the same feel free to grab a copy of my book Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame, a fantastical family adventure with were-polar-bears, magical fairgrounds, odd little men who kick heads first and ask questions later, and (of course) a world hidden just behind our own; a world called Fey.

As always, thanks for reading, if you have anything you’d like to share about this post feel free to pop something in the comments section below or over on my facebook or twitter profiles (and yes I do see the irony, given what I’ve just said about screens and social media).

All the best, John

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