“What’s wrong with the world, mama?
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas.
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma…
Wrong information always shown by the media.
Negative images is the main criteria,
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria.
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema.
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity?
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality?
Instead in spreading love we spreading animosity,
Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity.
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love?”
— Black Eyed Peas
The way I see it, my children have two mamas—me and mother earth. When I get tired, or I need a break, the other mama is there to do the job. She’s stricter than I am—bees sting, sun burns and darkness comes no matter how much one argues. But she’s kinder than I am too. She offers everything. And she’ll be there, and continue mothering, long after I’m gone. As co-mama, it’s my job to make sure my children have time with the other, bigger, mama. A lot of time. And time without me interfering or meddling. In fact, it’s best I’m not around at all—earshot away is best in the beginning. But as my children grow, she takes them further away.
One day, she was calling. It had been a long time since I had acknowledged her role in our lives. It was a beautiful day and the kids were hanging around inside. ‘Go play outside!’ I told them. I paused for a moment, musing at what I had just said. Those very words had left the lips of millions of mamas around the world for centuries. Mamas who instinctively knew there was another bigger, better mama out there.
Why, now, were these words sounding so strange and unfamiliar to me? ‘Go play outside.’ I said it again just to feel myself form the words and again experience their strangeness. Not only had I not said them much, but I realised I had not heard them from other mamas much, if at all. From the look on my children’s faces, they too were musing over this odd new suggestion. Has it become a phrase no longer used? Have households across Australia simply stopped saying it? Are the days of forts, tree houses, and gangs of young kids on bikes over? Is the other mama being forgotten, or worse, undermined?
If you took a stroll in my child-filled suburban neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon you might say, ‘yes’. The streets are empty, the playing fields and forests—empty; creeks, trees, pavements, basketball courts, tennis courts—all empty. That is, except for the regularly scheduled organised team sports. Swinging ropes over rivers dangle eerily still; tadpoles, geckos and penny lizards remain uncaught; puddles undisturbed. The CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) states that we Australians now spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.
Every time I walk our dog in the empty fields, past empty trees and silent playgrounds, I fret. It’s the kind of fretting a mama lion would do if her babies weren’t well or taken from her. It comes from deep inside, from an ancient knowing of balance and order, and is stoked by the distant cries of all mamas from all of time. Something’s wrong.
A short visit to various homes reveals the cause. Children lying prostrate in front of screens, young people texting at the dinner table. Earth mama is being replaced with a machine.
In fact, the machine is doing a pretty good job of replacing all mamas. The machine is called the media and it comes in many forms but all of it ends up on some screen somewhere—in the car, in the theatre, in bedrooms, living rooms, purses, airport lounges, banks, pubs, buses, restaurants and schools. One could say it’s a tool of the patriarchy, but for sure it’s a dad gone bad. And it’s come to take our kids, take their minds and hearts, away.
The media likes to say that our kids aren’t safe outside. It likes to tell us scary stories to keep them inside, where the power points are. It also likes to tell us scary stories about kids denied that ‘educational edge’ if they don’t have screens at school. Earth mama won’t listen to this, but we, in our desire to be good mamas (and papas), listen to it all.
In a well-known education journal, a computer hardware ad depicts an empty classroom, with computers on each desk. Outside in the background is an empty schoolyard. The children are clustered off to one side, faces pressed against the classroom window peering inside. ‘We make recess obsolete,’ touts the ad.
Now that’s a scary story.
However, most are thrilled by the exciting ‘computer revolution’ emerging in education, and remain grateful for the general ‘babysitting’ the screen offers at home.
What most parents and educators don’t know is that neuroscientists, academics and health professionals are becoming increasingly alarmed about the developmental effects on children and adolescents as a result of their time in front of a screen. ‘In most cases, screen time is screen time—whether it is in front of a TV or so-called educational computer. It is the medium of the screen itself and the amount of time our children are looking at it that is the subject of increasing medical and educational concern,’ said Dr. Aric Sigman, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and author of Remotely Controlled: How television is damaging our lives and what we can do about it in an email with me recently.
So much time are children spending now in front of a screen, that it is surpassing time with anything or anyone else. According to a University of Maryland study, American kids now spend 40 per cent less time with their parents than kids did in the mid-sixties. At the same time, they spend far more than double that amount of time staring at a screen.
Australian children have similar habits, spending more time in front of a screen than any other activity apart from sleeping. According to a survey published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, overall kids spend one-quarter to one-third of their waking time in front of a screen each day. Even more alarming was the rise of ‘extreme screenies’ who stared at a screen for more than five hours a day.
According to James P. Steyer, author of The Other Parent, media is becoming a surrogate parent to millions of children, teaching them about sex, violence and what to buy. It’s a whole new media landscape out there. Not at all the same as the Gilligan’s Island days when we were young. And most of us have been slow to catch on to the difference, letting our children run free with this new entity.
Think about it: if another adult spent three hours a day with your kids, regularly exposing them to junk food, violence, sex and greedy materialism, you would probably forbid that person to be near them again!
And what if they did worse than that? What if, on top of exposing your kids to all that stuff, they also hypnotised them in the process—making them even more susceptible to the messages they were exposing them to? And what if, in addition to that, they also somehow made their time with your kids addictive? And what if, in addition to that, your kids were actually bonding to this other adult because they were spending so much time with them? You’d be really mad, then, right?
Well, that’s exactly what screens do. Can you hear all the mamas crying yet?
Screens actually shut down certain parts of the brain, quieting the discerning, independent thinking parts much like hypnosis. Dr. Sigman writes, ‘Research by Professor Herbert Krugman found that within 30 seconds of turning on the television, our brain becomes neurologically less able to make judgements about what we see and hear on the screen.’
Watching television [or any screen], says Dr. Sigman, is also thought to subdue the involvement of the most sophisticated part of our brain—the frontal lobe. This is the brain’s executive control system, responsible for planning, organising and sequencing behaviour for self-control, moral judgement and attention.
Subdued brains make us feel like we’re ‘relaxed’, and give us a feel-good fix for the duration of the time the screen is on. But when the screen turns off, that feel-good fix ends. Sound like anything else you know? That’s why screen time is addictive. Neuro-chemically, our brain responds to screen-time in the same way it does to alcohol or drugs.
And while our children’s brains are subdued, and—quite literally—plugged in, the media rolls out its very own globalised enculturation. It’s a kind of Americanised, Hollywood-ised, corporatised enculturation, which in turn endangers other cultures. I’ll never forget the day that I saw my six-year-old daughter, after spending time at a friend’s house, hold a carrot like a microphone and belt out ‘Like a Virgin’.
And while our kids’ minds are subdued and learning all about the world according to media, they are missing other things. Jane Healy, PhD, educator and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Mind explains that growing brains have certain sensitive stages of development. These stages require specific stimuli in order to develop. ‘Neuroscience suggests strongly that if the child or teenager’s developmental needs during these fragile stages are not met, certain developmental windows “close”,’ she says. ‘Time spent with trivial, violent, or socially isolating technology can distort the [developmental] process.’
In order to develop properly, children need time with mamas, papas, aunties, uncles and for sure time with the other mama, the big mama—nature. And they need time to play. In a weird and almost sick twist of fate, even Ronald McDonald is telling kids to go outside and play. A recent Diabetes Australia press release asks students to ‘turn off their TVs and computers and switch to play by taking part in a Hula Hoop Challenge during recess’. Hello?! We have to invite kids to hula hoop? We have to invite them to play? Apparently so.
People are living like they haven’t any mamas. They’ve been in someone else’s arms, and the symptoms are really showing. Not only are our children suffering, but so is the whole planet.
So here’s the deal. We need to take back our kids. We need to take them out of the arms of that other crazy parent and reclaim their hearts and minds. And we need to re-acquaint ourselves with that big mama who’s going to help us do just that—walk in her stars at night, hear her song, smell her fragrance, play in her waters. We need to trust her again and send our children straight into her huge bosom. Only three words are all it’s going to take. Standing tall, with fingers boldly pointing out the door, we mamas all around the world are saying, ‘Go play outside!’ And the big mama’s waiting. She’s been waiting a while. She’s going to take care of the situation. She’ll grab those children firmly by the hand…and she’ll handle it.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.
Failure to Connect – How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds and What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy, PhD, Touchstone, 1999
Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books, 2006
Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives and What We Can Do About It by Dr Aric Sigman, Random House, 2005
The Other Parent –The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children by James P. Steyer, Atria Books, 2003