Defining childhood in time of smartphones

Children used to be clearly definable, for they belonged to the great outdoors, spoke a language of their own, and read certain books.

A few days ago my 14-year-old son came to me, seeking my advice as to an essay assignment with the title: There is still a childhood heart in me.

He tried to sound casual, though I was certain that whatever I suggested would be eagerly imbibed, mentally noted, and then committed to paper.

Traditionally a child would easily conjure up an image of underdeveloped humans demonstrating qualities like innocence, simplicity, or responsiveness to nature. I cited our recent family trip to Changbaishan, in Jilin Province. The highlights of the trip, as we recall now, included a pilgrimage to the Heavenly Lake, cycling, long walks through a forest over a mountain, and the exhilarating rides and slides in a water park — these are all things children like.

Ambitious adults as a rule pretend to have outgrown these childish predilections, having evolved into oxymorons who work long and hard so that they can afford a few days of vacation where he can enjoy some of his childhood pleasures.

Then I realized this is not an easy subject to tackle for a 14-year-old.

I consider the sundry agents that are fast socializing the young today. We are still capable of enjoying some childhood pleasures simply because occasionally we still have effective control over the use of our smartphones.

Would my son venture out of the hotel at all if he had absolute free choice regarding the use of smartphones?

Throughout the trip, wherever we looked, we saw some children engrossed in electronic devices. But who should we blame when adults in general seem to lack the intelligence and judgement to exercise their freedom responsibly?

At Changbaishan Airport, I saw a man, a woman, and a girl sitting side by side all stooped over some devices. It took me quite a while to decide that they were one family. But there is a flip side to this. Smartphones have successfully killed ennui, and considerably eased the anxiety often associated with a long flight delay. The flight to our destination had been delayed 9 hours, and the return flight, 4 hours.

Therefore it is becoming difficult to define childhood by their behavior.

I knew before that smartphones are necessities in scenic areas. But it had been an eye opener for me to see people still toying with their smartphones while in a spa or splashing in a pond, where the devices are ingeniously sealed in plastic containers.

Recently some colleagues talked about a noted historian from Fudan University. After attending one of his lectures last month, I found, unlike many instructors today, the scholar still lectured with passion, and he finished the two-hour oration without any break, not even allowing time for “questions”. One of my colleagues mentioned that he did not even use a mobile phone. At this my respect for him increased, for I think freedom from smartphones is probably one necessary condition for any deep work today.

Children used to be clearly definable, for they belonged to the great outdoors, spoke a language of their own, and read certain books. But in the age of Internet childhood is more liquid and malleable than we supposed before, as children and adults alike now share the same joke, talk about the same blockbusters, and play the same games.

But we tend to turn our attention to the more mundane consequence of smartphone addiction.

Recently an article by Ge Dandi, published in Dushi Kuaibao (Metro Express), reported that a businesswoman surnamed Li, for the sake of her job, needed to stoop over her mobile and tablet for over ten hours on an average day.

Then Li began to experience a whirling sensation, and found it hard to stand still. She was diagnosed with a serious cervical vertebra malfunction, and is in need of intensive treatment.

Ge then carried out a survey among 55 of her acquaintances with an average age of 38, and found that 31 percent of the surveyed spent 5 to 8 hours on their mobile phones, playing games, watching news and videos, shopping, or ordering delivery. A report earlier this year by the Spine Society of Europe used “text neck” to describe the neck pain and possible damage sustained from constantly looking down at a mobile phone, tablet, or other wireless devices for an extended period of time.

It is explained that once the head is bent forward to look down on an electronic device’s screen, quite often at up to a 60° angle, the neck muscles have to pull 5 times as much and thus, the physical leverage and gravity may increase the head’s force on the neck muscles to 25+ kilograms. The known long-term consequences may include neck discomfort and pain, stiffness and headaches which may get worse over time.

By comparison, we are more reticent concerning how the devices are seriously compromising the life prospects of our children.

On the streets there are slogans advocating more attention to children’s healthy growth. This “healthy” certainly refers to more than their physique.

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