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Are we losing our children to gaming?

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It was a Saturday night, and we had six little boys over for a pre-Barmitzvah celebration. While grateful that they were entertaining themselves, there was something strange in the way they were interacting.
by JULIE LEIBOWITZ | Jun 21, 2018

Four of them were glued to a FIFA game on the TV, one was actually playing the game, and the other three were cheering him on. Normal, you might think. But their opponent was an anonymous individual from the FIFA 2016-loving void, who could be any age, and who probably did not even speak the same language as them.

One of the other boys sat on the couch with them, but he was engrossed in a different game on his iPad with someone else. The sixth boy was in a different room, on another computer, playing the latest “shooter” craze, Fortnite, and chatting through headphones at the same time. When asked who he was talking to, he responded “friends from class”.

Sad, you might think. Kids don’t really socialise these days. But, these boys were engaged in social interaction, and they were having fun – just in a different way.

The point is, so-called millennials – children born after 2000 – don’t limit their interaction to the people in the room. They assume that whatever they are doing will include participants from outside their immediate physical realm. These can be friends who are not in the room with them, or anonymous people in the wider digital ether.

Some may know people in the conventional physical world, but only become friends only after they find each other digitally – often in the case of Fortnite.

Fortnite is the latest gaming craze. It is a cross between Minecraft and the Hunger Games, according to a recent article in The New York Times. Fortnite differs slightly from other games in that it has a strong social element. Friends can team up, and if they are not in the same physical space, they communicate through headsets. They develop strategies, cheer one another on, or just trade banter. In fact, these seems to be the game’s key selling points for kids.

Experts on global trends point out that the digital world is making the world much smaller culturally. In other words, a youngster with access to a smartphone, games and the internet in Somalia will have more in common with a youngster in, say, Ireland than we may think.

Of course, all of this applies only to children with access to such tools – read middle class or upper-middle-class families – but the barriers are fast breaking down with cheaper smartphones and broadband.

So, what does the digital divide – and there really is a divide between those who were and weren’t born with an iPad in their hands - mean for our kids? Is it affecting the way they socialise, does it make them more vulnerable/less able to have a conversation? And/or is it making them more masterful in terms of developing split-second reflexes, heightened spatial and mathematical ability, access to information, and global savvy?

It’s a question pondered by teachers, psychologists, social workers and media law experts, who are concerned with the vulnerability of youngsters in “digital socialising”, such as cyberbullying, reputation damage, and online predators.

“Though there are benefits to gaming like quick reaction time and cognitive skills, children are losing out on the lessons learnt through non-verbal communication – which makes up about 65% of our communication,” says Fran Chetwin, a clinical psychologist in private practice. “To a certain extent, it affects levels of EQ, or social learning, which is crucial to make one’s way in the outside world.”

She warns about the negative consequences of many youngsters and teens’ “lack of impulse control”, particularly in a medium in which it is easy to say what you might never say face to face.

“We see many disasters,” she says. “The fallout of social media interaction includes exclusion and social bullying, causing depression, stress, anxiety – and this to my mind presents a greater danger than predators.”

“Unprecedented levels of connectivity comes with unprecedented levels of risk – from a legal, reputational, psychological, and health perspective,” warn legal and communications experts Emma Sadleir and Sarah Hoffman.

They recommend that parents educate their children on the risks of the “interweb”; make sure that they have tight privacy settings in place; and that their children balance screen time with real-life activity.

The latter can be difficult in an environment like Johannesburg, where there is no centralised, free place for children to socialise, like a beach, for example.

A King David School counsellor, who wanted to remain anonymous, pointed out there just aren’t that many options for kids to socialise, hence gaming looms large in our tweens’ lives. Real-life interaction is limited to playdates, house parties, or malls – and as we can see in the example above, even when children are in the same room, they are also on their devices.

The counsellor said the gaming obsession was age related to some extent, with younger children more involved than teenagers, who gravitate towards what we might call more “traditional” socialising.

But, though young adults still appear to be doing the same thing at malls they always have, shopping, eating and watching movies, retail is catching onto the digital trend.

From large malls down to individual shops – even financial services – the focus is on how to give the customer an experience as well as a transaction, and how to link the physical and digital worlds. Banks are putting games onto devices in waiting areas, malls are investing in all-encompassing digital entertainment areas, shopfronts are becoming personalised and interactive.

The bottom line is that we can’t seal our children off from artificial intelligence. It’s important to accept that all human interaction inevitably involves some sort of digital interaction.

We are literally at the very start of the age of the cyborg – the mythical half man, half machine. What is critical is that we don’t lose our humanity while doing so, our emotional intelligence, ability to read each other face to face and communicate with honesty and love.

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