FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Structured, Indoor Lives of Kids

Summer is supposed to be the time of year when kids spend as much time as possible outside. But that was then...

A somewhat depressing article in USA Today notes what most parents already know: kids are spending much more time indoors than they used to. One survey quoted found that bike riding among kids is down 31% since 1995, and that only 6% of kids who play baseball do so without any kind of adult-imposed structure. Sales of bikes and memberships at public pools are way down. Correspondingly, childhood obesity is way up.

TV, the Internet and video games occupy much of kids' time these days... and when they do go outside, it's in a structured environment such as a camp or club. Affluence provides for kids a home environment so comfortable that they have no reason to venture outside of it. Parents are understandably afraid to let kids wander in an age of fear of child abduction. Lower birthrates, moreover, mean that many of today's children are spending more time alone than did their Baby Boomer predecessors, who could always count on at least a few friends hanging around the neighborhood at any given time. Through the Internet, their friends may hail from all over the world, yet they are friends who have never met face-to-face.

When I was growing up, the fun of summer was its randomness, its chaos. Simply being able to goof off for hours on end tested the imagination and fostered creativity. Being outdoors provided a different perspective on the world.

Today, though, unstructured play is seen as either dangerous or a waste of time, and even the most overprotective parent of the past would be considered negligent by today's standards. How will all of this affect today's children as they grow older? It may be difficult for today's kids to move beyond the confines of the Net and video games into business and personal relationships, as well as engage in creative problem-solving that doesn't involve technology.

And for those kids who master the real world enough to find a mate and start a family, will their children be even more thoroughly "coccooned"? Or will a backlash movement emerge that provides kids with more outdoor, free-form, non-technological activity?