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Rise of Virtual Neighbourhoods

Let’s play a game. A virtual game.

Picture yourself standing on a satellite orbiting our planet, looking down on our world.

You zoom in and discover people in this world like to live in groups - thousands, in fact millions of them live with their children, with other family members, maybe with friends; forming their unique family footprint.

They live vertically and horizontally.

You can see their public gathering spaces - parks, playgrounds, neighbourhood blocks, community gardens, basketball courts, skate parks, creeks, rivers, beaches, conservation areas, nature reserves, hills, mountains and other green spaces - all interconnected by roads, bike paths and walking tracks.

These people choose to live together in these supersized villages, amassed together, with an innate desire to connect with each other, converse with each other, even commuting together, among all these impressive social resources and infrastructures.

Imagine the social gatherings, the interconnectedness, the sense of community and the celebrations among these citizens!

But this is the great paradox of the modern world in which many of us now live.

At no other time in human history have we lived in such large groups, but at the same time, never have we been so socially disconnected, isolated and alone.

Urbanisation and the mass movement of people to the cities may mean we choose to live together, but it is like we are living a million miles apart.

The opportunities for connections, especially for our children, are incredibly high, but are in reality, shockingly low.

Many of us live in urban communities with children who don’t even know each other.

These children don’t connect and they never play outside together.

We want to believe in the idyllic picture of neighbourhoods with children roaming everywhere and playing outside, but often the real picture is our children may live within direct contact distance, just metres apart, but they now prefer the company of screens to “IRL” (in-real-life) friends.

While many parents have become increasingly anxious over the growing sedentary lifestyles of their children and the replacement of “screen time”” over “green time”, increasingly concerned for their child’s health and well-being, and may have even attributed these physical and emotional issues to the disappearance of the neighbourhood as a social resource and outdoor play tool – their children have been finding and forming online neighbourhoods, virtual neighbourhoods.

There are now growing bands of children, mostly aged nine and up, but some younger, who are part of digital communities.

Our youngsters are connecting with others, young and old, mostly across gaming forums, but definitely discussing a lot more than gaming.

Children are forming relationships and friendships, but now it is virtual and global.

Children are achieving togetherness, sharing awesome experiences, going on adventures with friends, building, destroying, and embracing playing with super human powers, across a variety of virtual settings.

While on these online expeditions, they are dropping in comments and chatting about school, friends, family, challenges. Telling jokes, discussing funny videos, recommending other cool online features to explore, smiling, laughing, and being creative. All without leaving their rooms.

The blinds are pulled down to enhance their screen. The door is shut for privacy and to reduce disturbance. The world is no longer “at their feet”, but in front of them, on a screen.

As a digital immigrant, clinging furiously to the concept of a free-range outdoor childhood, based on my own experiences as a child, my mind has been blown away by the social and cultural shifts in modern childhood.

As I come to terms with these changes, I have begun to accept these thought-provoking facts:

  • The concept of “neighbourhood” has dramatically changed for this generation
  • Our children are integrating virtual online neighbourhoods as part of their social stimuli and connection experience

It makes sense right?

Children’s online social connections is their virtual reality and their virtual neighbourhood.

Children finding friends through commonality has resulted in huge established online communities gathering within these platforms.

Hundreds and thousands of children (and adults) come together, bringing with them their personalities, character, self-expression, interests, attitudes, values and beliefs, where together they explore, express, test and form their identify.

Forget for a moment whether this behavior is healthy, as it is happening now, under our rooves and within our homes across the country.

But instead consider what has been lost in modern childhood, and consider whether these changes are in the best interest for our children, our communities, our planet.

Developmentally, we can see the impact.

The priority for a baby is to master their bodies. They form their identity based on the connections in their immediate families and from there, identities begin to expand.

At around 9 years of age, most children are seldom satisfied with just having a family identity - they want to know who they are out there, in the world.

Over the past 30 years our neighbourhoods have almost disappeared as a space for childhood.

For most modern children, their neighborhood is no longer a place for social connection, for having fun, for friends, freedom and challenge, which means the modern neighbourhood now offers little value to our children.

These changes in the neighbourhood and subsequent childhood behaviours are largely adult-created.

Barriers - both real and imagined, are largely born out of reactionary fear-based concern and love for our children.

I recently heard a comment by a parent on a local talk-back radio show. The parent said “we want to hold on tight to our children and keep them safe, but if we hold on too tight, it will leave a mark”.

Wise words indeed as the marks are beginning to show.

A healthy lifestyle for children is becoming harder to achieve. By this I mean children developing a relationship with physical activity, honed social-emotional skills and well-rounded cognitive development. Some are now suggesting that this generation of children due to the significant changes in childhood are going to have a lower life-expectancy than that of their parents.

The wealth of data, statistics and research demonstrates a growing gap between the modern childhood experience and a child’s ability to achieve wellness.

Here is a very important fact to consider in this picture: Children don’t care about any of this.

The major stakeholder in the ‘modern child’s health decline’ issue is simply not interested at all.

For children are never focused on their developmental needs.

For children, it is a question of motivation.

What is motivating our children today?

The answer is exactly the same as what has motivated children for all of human history.

Children are motivated by what I call the 4 F’s – Fun, Freedom, Friends and Fluency (by fluency I mean mastery of skills).

And yes, these 4 F’s can all be satisfied online as well as out in the physical neighbourhood.

For those like me who experienced a free-range outdoors childhood, we cling to the hope that our children will want to venture outside to find their fun, freedom, friends and fluency.

In my role as Program Director of Nature Play QLD, I am pleased to report there are communities where families have recognised the need to ensure children have a sense of autonomy in their neighborhoods - able to access friends on a whim, have a high degree of choice and build their independence.

The good news is that within these neighbourhoods, children are choosing outdoor play over online gaming to satisfy the 4 F’s.

These children would rather connect in real life, face to face, and have real time adventures than virtual ones.

This means outdoor free play, and interest in physical neighbourhoods is not evolving-out of childhood – but we should be alarmed that for most of them, it is being programmed out-of-their-brains.

The neighbourhood play file is being deleted from most modern children’s minds, and is no longer associated with the 4 F’s.

What does this mean for parents?

First consider this equation: Virtual Neighbourhood V’s the Neighbourhood IRL (In-Real-Life) & the 4 F’s

Below is a table of considerations I have put together from the perspective of the modern child and the concept of neighbourhood.

So, what does this mean for parents? Carers? Children? Communities?

It means this:

  • We are social animals and our children are satisfying their social needs in a virtual world.
  • Children’s indoor sedentary lifestyles are resulting in significant long-term health problems, physically, emotionally, and socio-emotionally.
  • Fear continues to grow out of the lack of direct engagement with our neighbourhoods. That is we are losing our connectivity and sense of community.
  • Currently, online is the easiest and simplest way for children to satisfy the 4 F’s - FUN, FREEDOM, FRIENDS & FLUENCY

But the good news is:

  • With a few simple and easy actions, we can revitalise our local areas as places children can satisfy their play needs.
  • When given the choice and opportunity to go outdoors to play with other children locally, most of our youngsters prefer the physical neighbourhood over the virtual.
  • We need to prioritise and cater for children’s motivations for play locally.
  • We also need to take time, patience, and consistency to rebuild our neighbourhoods.
  • It is also going to take some skillful ‘ninja parenting’ (this is the art of facilitating play, without being present. Not being seen, but still having some idea what our children are up to, and therefore enabling them to be the driver of their play activities) and trust to our children.

While there is no research on what children are discussing online, it is great to know that children are finding an outlet for their need to connect with other children, but I do have some strong reservations of the quality of those online relationships, as well as the impacts the reduced amount of face-to-face time may be having on our children.

For example, not being able to see the person can increase in online bullying, as children can’t see the damage and consequence of their behavior resulting in reduced ‘care-factor’ and a missed opportunity to develop some very important social skills such as empathy, care and compassion.

Hearing tone, seeing facial expressions, being physical present, hearing stories, help our children develop a sense of their friend’s worlds as well as the immediate world they live-in.

Different families, different homes, expose beliefs, attitudes, values. These experiences help our children develop the skills to observe, listen, accept and understand diversity.

The Childhood Summit (being hosted in Brisbane in 2019) will feature a keynote by Dr. Mari Swingle, a globally published therapist, researcher and author who has been working in the fields of impact on children of screens.

  • Her work explores the pervasive influence of technology on the developing brain and shows
  • How constant connectivity is rapidly changing our brains
  • What dangers are posed to children and adults alike in this brave, new world
  • The positive steps we can take to embrace new technology while protecting our well-being and steering our future in a more human direction.

On United National Children’s Day; the day that offers each of us an opportunity to advocate, promote and celebrate children’s rights, translating into dialogues and actions that build a better world for our children, I encourage everyone to consider how childhood is changing.

And I invite interested people and policy makers to join us at the Childrens Summit in 2019 to debate the impact of the digital era on our children and how we can provide their Four F’s and protect their future.

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