Run wild, run free

Lost childhood

Run wild, run free

Little Diya, all of 5 years old, grabbed my smart-phone after I took her picture at a recent dinner party in our community. I watched, fascinated, as she used her tiny fingers on the touch screen to go to the ‘gallery’ on the gadget, flick her fingers rapidly across the screen, locate her photograph, and tap on it to enlarge it. Her delighted squeal as she saw her face on the screen was infectious — I burst out laughing. But, amidst the admiration for her being able to effortlessly use a hi-tech gadget, a tiny alarm bell of caution went off in my head — are our children losing a vital part of their childhood to such gadgets? 

I went back a quarter of a century, when the personal computer was a big thing. My late father-in-law, a renowned poet, playwright and author, would often call out to his young grand-daughter when he was stuck with a technical issue with his desktop computer. She would march up the stairs, turn the keyboard towards herself, all of three-and-a-half-feet tall, and imperiously type out the Wordstar command that he was looking for, and stomp away. He would turn to me, sitting reading a book close-by, and smile admiringly. Windows and Bill Gates were not on the scene yet.

Today, all that seems too simple. It may not even find a mention as a prodigious act of a child.

Our childhoods were so completely different. We used to do things like climbing trees, and settling on branches for hours, munching on guavas or wincing at the sourness of unripe mangoes; play gilli-dhanda, fly kites, spin tops (called bugiri or bambaram (depending on which part of Bengaluru you grew up in), play holly-colly, hopscotch, cricket, hockey, seven-stones, Blindman’s Buff — these were far more wonderful and clever than all these super-smart gizmos — because we had to use our imagination and people-skills and voices and laughter to make them all work. All these things that seem so ancient and low-tech were so full of life.  

We were out in the fresh open air (not much of that around these days, you would say), getting our feet muddy, our hands wet, and our heads heated up in the scorching sun. (Yes, we had a sun even back then). Summer holidays were meant for being out of the house as much as possible, with intervals only to eat lunch or tiffin, before we rushed back with the marbles clickety-clicking in our pockets and the cricket bats and tennis balls clutched in our sweaty palms as a reserve for in-between dull moments. No sitting indoors with video games or films or even cartoon movies to save us from ‘overheating, sunburn, dehydration’ and all that — the ubiquitous TV had not yet appeared on the scene. Thank god! And yes, there were really hot days then, too — it is not a recent invention!

Late evenings, the time after dinner was spent under the gooseberry trees (nellikai mara) listening to Ajji telling us ancient mythological stories, which made us all use our imagination to try and visualise a scene — Arjuna hitting the eye of a wooden fish with only the reflection on water as a guide, or Bheeshma lying on a bed of arrows by the battlefield... scenes from the Jataka tales, or the heart-in-the-lump feeling when we would ‘see’ Jatayu being killed as the loyal vulture tried to stop Sita from being kidnapped. Glorious stuff. Images. All merely from stories being told by a human being. We had to imagine it — there was no other way.  These days, children spend more time staring at screens and handling a mouse than stepping out into the open or interacting with other humans. Making a child sit in front of the television to shut them up or keep them occupied has become passé and old-fashioned — you now hand out iPads and smart-phones and gaming consoles. Experts say the way the children’s brains are developing these days have changed because they do not spend time outdoors doing physical activities. 

Like adults, like children
And we adults are not setting good examples. Gone are the days of opening one’s eyes in the morning to rub one’s palms together and over our eyes to have a good day, or to do a namaskara and pray, or to gaze at our loved one’s faces fondly, even as they slept; or to let one’s dog out to the balcony or the courtyard, or to gaze out of the window at the scene outside (which has also become so ugly and cluttered, but that is another story). 

No. The first thing we all do is to sleepily reach out for our smart-phones and check out all those meaningless postings on Whatsapp or Twitter or whatever is your cup of tea. Then comes the actual cup of tea and other routine stuff. Our children are watching all this and imitating us — to be seen staring blankly at dimly-lit screens the very first thing in the morning is an okay thing, they must think.

Children are showered with hi-tech gadgets. Reading from a book? Old-fashioned and not the ‘in’ thing to do. Much easier to shortlisting an Enid Blyton tale (the simple favourite of our era), or Tolkien, or a J K Rowling novel on a gadget.

And when such gadgets are confiscated from children as punishment, they throw a ‘tech tantrum’ — which is now being described as having an ‘iPaddy’ — what are we coming to?

So, going back to my childhood, climbing trees, playing with children outdoors, listening to stories being told by Ajjis — what did it give us that is different? For one thing, it fired up our imagination, and sharpened our curiosity towards the world around us. The breathing space between activities, underlined by the fact that there were no gadgets to be hooked on to — meant that we had many comfortable ‘transitional moments’, they helped us absorb feelings, and made us think. There were never these long hours with gadgets, with rapid, unthinking, machine-like responses that left one’s senses numbed and robot-like. Breaking away from such devices for a lunch or a bathroom break seems more like being performed in a trance rather than taking a refreshing break. For us, breaking away from a delightful game of pendha (a do or die marbles game) meant we could have a dosai with bella (jaggery) & nellikai (gooseberry) chutney before we romped off to climb trees or played hockey with ultra-hard cork balls, barefeet and no protectional pads. One of our schoolmates even went on to become India’s hockey captain. We were proud, but not surprised — we were good!

Is this for real?
Children don’t seem to be having fun these days — and it is not my untrained nostalgic self that is saying this — psychiatrists across the globe are coming up with more and more disturbing findings that all point towards gadgets and troubled childhoods. There is a huge increase in the number of young children suffering from addictions to gaming, cell-phones and gadgets. 

Dr Vivek Benegal, professor of Psychiatry, head of Centre for Addiction Medicines, NIMHANS, Bengaluru says, “These addictions (to gaming and gadgets) are similar to substance addictions, like alcohol or drug dependence. If a person starts drinking, smoking or abusing substances at 16 years of age, then there is an 80% chance that they will become addicted, or will develop problems with alcohol and drugs. But if they start doing these things at 25 years of age, then there would only be a 5% chance that they would develop problems. I want to transpose this example to the use of gadgets — the same thing applies — if you start using gadgets at 16, and become addicted to it, chances are that you will develop problems in real life...” 

It is not as if all modern hi-tech inputs are bad. It is just that they have to be rationed out properly. The use of the mental faculties during an art class — drawing and painting and colouring — helps massage the brain, and makes it do well in mathematics. Various other outdoor activities help develop the brain in ways that gadgets and gaming consoles cannot. 

What is frightening is that children are becoming more and more numb to real-life situations, thanks to gaming and virtual reality situations. The more they kill, destroy, annihilate, decimate, nullify threats, the more they move away from compassion and mercy. It’s very simple — how can you value life when you can destroy it so easily on your screen?  

Scores of children are doing painting and drawing as ‘therapy’ for attention disorders, depression and addictions. “Our everyday life 25 years ago is therapy today,” says Dr Benegal. “Working with clay, making something, art classes, drawing, writing, painting... all those things we used to do then are now therapy sessions to help children with problems arising out of addiction to gadgets. Let’s get this clear — technology has many benefits. What is important is how much of it children access. We need to clearly manage the time spent on it.”

Think about it. Where is your child headed towards after daily school? As long as the scenario is something realistic like a playground, goal posts and all that, it’s fine — but, is your child hitting a real football or a virtual one? That is the real question. The good thing is that we are still able to take the ball off the field. How and what we kick into play is the question. And the winner should be our children.

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