A TECH-FREE SUMMER MIGHT BE THE BEST SUMMER EVER!
The Importance of Play
Take a minute to think of a joyful childhood memory when you were engaged in play. Perhaps from summer camp or somewhere else. Where were you? Who was there? What were you doing? Was a smartphone involved? OK, now fast forward to today. Do you see kids playing in the same way you did as a child? Playing more? Playing less? Do your kids play as freely as you did as a child, with the same amount of supervision?
It’s no secret that kids love to play. When left to their own devices, kids can play all day in very creative ways. They make up stories, skits, games and songs. They immerse themselves in make-believe or lose themselves for hours in a book. Summer is an incubator of play, and there can be many unplanned moments of spontaneous play throughout the day. It’s a gift that cultivates joy. And, it’s also a critical pathway through which kids learn, grow, and develop into adults who can successfully navigate the world around them.
Child-directed play is important for social-emotional growth, developing social skills, and building strong friendships. It allows kids to explore social interactions in low risk situations. “Getting repeated feedback in a low-stakes environment is one of the main ways that play builds social skills”. When kids play together they learn to notice and interpret social cues, listen, take another person’s perspective, and share ideas and feelings in the process of negotiating and compromising. In his Ted Talk, The Decline of Play, psychologist Dr. Peter Gray further advocates for the importance of play. “Play is nature’s way of ensuring that …young human beings…acquire the skills that they need to develop successfully into adulthood”. When you allow your kids time for undirected play, they’re not only having fun, they’re cultivating tools that will support them in navigating life.
Watching a group of students playing in the sandbox, it is evident how play helps kids learn to collaborate. The kids will take on different roles. One digs channels with the shovel, and another gathers sand with a bucket. Some are in charge of detailing a structure, while others step back and plan the next expansion. When one student wants to change roles, they have to ask another to swap tools and positions. Sometimes changing roles requires negotiating how much longer each of them will continue in their current role before switching. If one doesn’t agree with another’s suggestion he or she might respond, “I don’t think that’s fair”, leading the others to consider what might feel fair to them. They nearly always find a compromise. In many ways, play is the antithesis of heavy social media use. The act of play places kids in situations where they are continually learning, connecting, increasing their empathy, trying new modes of social engagement, and have the time and space for observation and contemplation that help them process their social experiences.
Free play also supports cognitive development, especially in younger children. It has been shown to increase neural connections in the brain (increasing pathways we use for critical thinking), build and strengthen the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, attention, problem-solving, impulse control, and planning), and support language skills. And while kids are playing, the absence of technology relieves the pressures of social media and actually helps kids sleep better. When humans view screens late at night they inevitably get less sleep, and they also lose out on the deep REM stage of sleep, which is critical for helping process and store events from the day into memory.
Today, our youth are spending less time engaging in self-directed play and more and more time on screens. A recent study found that in 2021, tweens (ages 8-12) spent about five and a half hours a day on screens, while teens (ages 13 to 18) spent about eight and a half hours a day on screens. Recent data released by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that in 2020 only 19.8% of school-aged children were physically active for at least one hour per day. How is this affecting our kids? And why is it essential to provide kids spaces where they can play and create together without the distractions of modern technology?
Social Media and Youth Mental Health
In 2007, Apple first released the iPhone and by 2012 had sold about 270 million units, equivalent to the population age 10 and older in the United States at that time. Translation - smartphones proliferated very quickly into modern society. And today there is a growing body of research that suggests heavy social media use is adversely impacting youth development.
According to Dr. Michael Rich, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, kids’ developing brains make it harder for them to limit their time on screens. Social media utilizes the same variable reward system that makes gambling so addictive. Unlike adults, a young person’s brain lacks a fully developed system of self-control to help them with stopping obsessive behavior. In a 2022 Pew Research Center study of American teenagers, 35% responded that they were using one of the top five social media platforms (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook) online “almost constantly”. And with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, rates of juvenile anxiety and depression have risen. From 2016 to 2020, researchers analyzing data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that rates of anxiety and depression increased 29% and 27%, respectively, for children ages 3-17.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business, and Dr. Jean Twinge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, have been compiling research about the links between social media and adolescent mental health. Through their work, they have found that many studies, using a variety of methods, suggest a strong link between heavy social media use and poor mental health, especially for girls.
Haidt also notes that Instagram especially magnifies pressures for teens. “Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them”. Teens especially, can obsess over what they post on platforms like Instagram, “even when the app is not open, driving hours of obsessive thought, worry, and shame”.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Medical School, focuses her research on the intersection of mobile technology and child development. Radesky (2018) surveyed a thorough study that suggests high-frequency digital media use is linked to an increase in new ADHD symptoms amongst teens, and researchers are also finding that heavy social media use leads to an increase in narcissistic behavior.
On a hopeful note, there is evidence that we get relief when we take a break from social media. Many experiments have shown that reducing or eliminating social media use for a week or more improves our mental health.
At Steiner, we understand that technology is a tool that our students will need in today's world. We recommend no technology for our youngest students and teach responsible use of it starting in middle school. Supporting this “slow-tech” approach, a break from technology has amazing value in helping kids understand and feel the benefits of spending time away from screens. As we end another school year and students have some much-needed free time, you might look for ways to preserve time for your children to play together without technology.