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We should resist putting screens in front of children, and instead encourage them to entertain – and think for – themselves


Michael Pettavel: 'Caught in the trap of being always busy can make us less creative, less social and more anxious'

Maybe I’m starting to show my age, but the length of screen time (three hours in the latest Childwise survey) afforded to children under the age of five makes me feel as if we are letting children down. This was emphasised when I saw a child trying to ‘swipe’ a book. Quality early education emphasises the importance of moving the ‘concrete’ into the ‘representational’, and anything viewed on a screen has to fall into the category of the symbolic.

The danger is that we don’t give children the opportunity to spend time in the material world, losing the opportunity to refine their core skills and knowledge that aren’t always available from a programmed device. I am often surprised and moved by children’s take on the world, their imagination, creativity and the way they ‘play’ with ideas; a delight in ‘non-sense’. Jean Piaget documented the joy in early symbolism, and Lev Vygotsky and the American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner demonstrate how it winds its way ever upward on a social path. If too many experiences exist in the dominion of screens, is depth lost?

A reason for the proliferation of tablet technology is the ability to keep us ‘busy’, as true for adults as for children. The constant desire to be in touch, always available and ever occupied puts huge pressure on our lives and relationships, and the links to stress, depression and poor mental health is now becoming well-documented.

Caught in the trap of being constantly stimulated and always busy can make us less creative, less social and more anxious.

So this column is a plea for boredom. Long car journeys without screens built into the headrests, afternoons and weekends without Peppa Pig, and the duty to occupy their time resting on the individual.

A cry of boredom should be welcomed by parents rather than solved. In occupying every moment, we think less and do less. Studies that have tested how tablets benefit learning often simply test the skills in screen proficiency and two-dimensional, linear thinking. We need to develop creativity and imagination; if all you can imagine is what you are given, then you are beholden to the limits of others.

We should give ourselves and children the opportunity to let our thinking minds wander, tinker with ideas, test out our limits and to find the inner peace that comes from having nothing to do.

As my mum would say, ‘Bored is what bored does.’

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