Next to the outdoor pool where I swim in the summer is a small lake, and about two tenths of a mile beyond that is a large lake.  Every summer, when the young geese are mature enough, they are taught to fly in formation.  While I swim laps, they fly laps and I get to watch them.  For many intervals throughout the day, the gaggle flies from the small lake to the large lake and back again.

The young’uns are not very good at spelling the letter V.  They fly all over the place, straying out of line, falling back, flying sideways, going the wrong direction, leaving too much space between themselves and the goose ahead.  But as the summer progresses, they catch on.  Their V gets tighter.  Their wing muscles strengthen so that they can fly to farther lakes.   If they spent half the day playing video games, they’d be left behind at migration time.  Alone, they wouldn’t survive.

Of course we don’t want our children to fly in perfect formation, but we do want them to have the skills to survive, and even thrive as they mature.

What skills are weakened when children are overconnected?  The ability or opportunity to:

  • Develop rules. (The rules of a digital game are set by the app.)
  • Fine-tune rules. (Ditto)
  • Negotiate. (Ditto)
  • Add creative variations. (If there are variations, they are offered as options or preferences.  The child can’t construct these.)
  • Experience the consequences of bad sportsmanship.  (Consequences are built in.  No social training from disappointed peers or coaches occurs.)
  • Experience the rewards of being helpful, supportive, or a team player.  (No social training occurs.  The child doesn’t experience the warm relief of inclusion, admiration, or gratitude for a positive effort.)
  • Experience genuine personal benefit for an accomplishment.  (In contrast, rewards are entirely external.  A prize is figurative—a score, a happy tune, clapping, an advance to a more difficult level of the game.)
  • Bond over a shared project. (Attachment issue correction to counteract poor parenting doesn’t occur.  Attachment issues that have the potential of at least partial healing from healthy peer or mentor bonding is absent.  Even if some type of grouping or cooperation occurs in an online game, this is a bloodless experience.)
  • Accumulate the components that enable profound human connection, which are necessary for successful marriage.  (Digitally enabled communication provides a limited set of skills.  If children are sharing a digital or online game, their interaction is mediated by the device or the game.  At best, it is parallel play, comforting perhaps, but still limited.)
  • Explore.  (The mind may be exercised by a game that is about exploration or discovery, but the corridors are pre-set.  She’s missing the fully sensed, kinesthetic experience of watching a marble shoot forward, with the sun warm on her back, and a robin happily chirping; or swinging as high as is safe, the breeze turning her hair into a spreading veil.  He’s missing that deep delight of pausing at the fork in the path, of the bloom of curiosity about what’s at the end of two unknown directions.)
  • Develop leadership.  (Even if a child is a leader in a game–a general or a surgeon or a pilot, he is not really practicing the sense of responsibility that comes from being at the helm, of making decisions that impact real people.  If someone falls out of the imaginary plane, no one is really hurt. One just resets the game and starts over.)
  • Exercise.  (The entire body is not involved.)
  • Discover physical limits.  (A child isn’t learning how high he can jump, how far and fast he can run, or his degree of endurance.  She spends more time indoors than outside, because one can see the screen of an app better when in a darker environment.)
  • Communicate with words.  (In a game, communication is either through actions, choices, or pre-set phrases.  Texting and tweeting both encourage cryptic comments reduced to minimal words.  Email is also leaner than either actual mail, a phone conversation, or a face-to-face encounter.)
  • Children who have difficulty expressing themselves become even more silent when they are over-involved with games.  A game does not require them to convert their thoughts into words, especially those which are difficult for all of us such as: I hurt/I’m lonely/I need help/I’m angry/My insides are quivering like a feather.

If they gather with other children (or adults) with minimal word skills, their comments are more likely to be outer directed, about activities that are outside themselves–games, apps they’ve discovered, the competence or mistakes of sports figures, hatred or disdain for other people or groups that are different from themselves, public figures who either confirm their own ideas, or prove the fallibility of taking an opposite position. Their comments are more likely to be outer directed, about activities that are outside themselves–games, apps they’ve discovered, the competence or mistakes of sports figures, hatred or disdain for other people or groups that are different from themselves, public figures who either confirm their own ideas, or prove the fallibility of taking an opposite position.

I was reading in a park last week and the seven girls of a family were playing together nearby.  They invented games or challenges for themselves and kept up an incessant litany about refinements of the rules.  Their conversation flowed like a waterfall and they managed to make room for the involvement of the younger, less skilled girls.  A much younger brother was also with them, also climbing large, sharp rocks, over which they were racing barefoot.  As involved as they were with their personal physical challenges, they were able to watch out for him, to never endanger him, and to keep him within the group.  It was a highly complex and competent display of coordinated group management that could never have been learned from an app.

Of course I’m not saying all apps or games or bad, or that children should not use digital devices, but they do need boundaries around the types of games they play, the amount of time they are involved with digital tools, and the apps they are allowed to download.

Childhood is preparation for adulthood and playing well with others is a significant part of a satisfying adulthood.  We need interpersonal skills in our friendships and at work.

Our divorce rate is high (40-50%, depending on who’s counting) and is highest for those in their 20’s. The percentage of people marrying has also dropped.  Where gaming is an issue, the divorce rate is higher and becoming more of a factor, pushing the divorce rate to a range of 55-75%.

So many elements contribute to divorce and lack of satisfaction in marriage that rarely is there a single issue as a cause, but poor relationship skills, lack of effective commun-ication, the presence of addiction, inattention to one’s partner, and the difference between a fantasy of marriage and the reality, are all common contributors.  Playing games on apps to the exclusion of interaction in childhood sets a child up for all the above.

Parents, please:

•           Pay attention to what apps and games your children are using.

•           Install boundaries so that digital involvement has a limit.

•           Also make time for family games, sports, and conversation.

Even geese have something to teach us, especially Mama and Papa goose.

Based on the book Boundaries in an Overconnected World © Copyright 2013 by Anne Katherine. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.

Therapist Anne Katherine specializes in helping people with boundaries, eating disorders, and food addiction. She wrote the first simple book on boundaries, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (over 250,000 copies sold), and was talking about food addiction twenty years before most people had even heard of it. She holds an MA in psychology from Vanderbilt University and has over forty years experience as a therapist in agencies, hospitals, and private practice. Anne has been interviewed by many radio and television outlets, including CNN Headline News, National Public Radio, and Lifetime. Her website is www.1annekatherine.com.

  1. Harris

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