By Stan Stewart.
Sitting in a coffee lounge, I watched a small family come down the street. Mum pushed a pusher with a small child - I guessed about ten months old. The tall, athletic dad, wearing a beanie, had a child on his shoulders - around two and a half I thought. As they passed, I saw the child was glued to a video tablet – an iPad or the like. It was wedged into Dad’s shoulder and rested against the back of his head. I thought and thought again. From the beginning of time, small children have loved riding on their dad’s shoulders. But, in 2023, for this little boy, the experience of riding on his dad’s shoulder needed that little extra. He had to have his device in front of him, so he didn’t miss a moment of screen time.
I regularly hear from a family member in Auckland about her niece in far-away London. The two have never met, but since soon after birth, the child has been in regular contact with her aunt. All of this has been possible because of a phone. The program on the phone enables the child and her aunt to talk together and see each other. There is no cost for this miracle connection and so communication is fairly unrestrained. Shortly after the child was two, she learnt how to access her aunt; that is, to use the sequence of saved clicks (not the phone number) to reach her aunt in New Zealand. Whenever she could have her mother’s phone (sneaking it at times), this small child would connect to her aunt. In this way they would communicate and play together. My friend who told me this says that often the view on her screen was of the ceiling or the wall, but always, when needed, it was face to face.
Her niece has an amazing vocabulary. She sometimes talks about things she experienced a long time ago – in another time. Recently, when talking about children and Father Christmas she said, “Father Christmas gave presents to all the egregious boys and girls.” Stop the clock! What is she talking about? Her Aunt and her mother had to go and look up the meaning of ‘egregious’. Neither of them had ever used the word. ‘Outstandingly bad’ is the current meaning. But in the 15th Century, it meant the opposite - ‘remarkably good’. Was she using the 15th Century meaning? Oops - steady on Stanley. That’s a bridge too far!
Returning to the fresh air of reason, the least that can be said is that most of today’s Kiwi children have no concept of what life would be like without a phone. I understand that this may not be so for some home-schooled children, but it is certainly true for most children. Presumably, today’s kids think of the pre-personal-phone days (iPhone was launched in 2007) as the dark ages? That is, for them the pre-phone world is as distant to them as Victorian England - bows and bustles, steam engines, sailing ships - was to us.
So what? Does it matter that their world view is being shaped by information streams and content of which we are barely aware? It matters. On the other hand, we (adults) know things which their phones won’t tell them. Our phone informed children are moving into a world which is being shaped by forces of which they are unaware.
When I think of today’s world events, east versus west etc. I am reminded of the most ridiculous macho game of all time, ‘chicken’. It was featured in the 1984 movie ‘Footloose’. Chicken involves driving vehicles head-on into each other. The one who swerves to avoid the oncoming vehicle is ‘chicken’. In the film two youths drove tractors at each other. Audiences were horrified and sickened by the stupidity of it all.
Caption: A scene from the 1984 movie, 'Footloose'.