Play in the Digital Age

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Digital technology has had a profound effect on every part of our lives—including how children experience play. In fact, play for today’s students may look nothing like it did even a few decades ago. One of the biggest differences is that kids today are less active (Patel, 2017). This lack of exercise can be attributed to the manifold ways kids interact with screens, from computers to smartphones to televisions. Children under the age of nine spend an average of two hours and 19 minutes a day with screen media (Howard, 2017).  The average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged into a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day (and that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones) (Rideout, 2010). This change in play has some serious consequences, including a sharp rise in child obesity rates (Patel, 2017). Just as concerning, research has also shown that increased screen time has negative effects on children’s mental health, especially for teenagers (Rosen et al., 2014). The form play takes is changing and it has implications for educators and parents alike.

Implications for Elementary Students

Recent research indicates that time spent on devices has eclipsed the amount of time children spend playing in-doors or outdoors. A 2017 study conducted by the analytics firm Gallup and the toy manufacturer Melissa & Doug revealed that children between the ages of two and ten spend an average of 10.6 hours per week playing outside and 14.6 hours per week playing indoors without screens, while 18.6 hours of their free time is spent in screen-based play (Nania, 2018). Screen-based activities don’t help students build authentic social and emotional skills the way that more conventional play does, including the critical skills of learning empathy for others (Yamamoto & Ananou,  2015). This means students who are entering our schools and classrooms have had less practice interacting with their peers face-to-face, resulting in underdeveloped skills for relating to classmates. Today’s students simply have not had the same amount of experience socializing with peers and handling the subsequent emotions associated with socializing as students did just a decade ago.

Implications for Middle School Students

Lack of play is an issue with older students as well. Very often, social gatherings among middle school students involve a group of teens in proximity to each other, but not actually interacting; instead, each student is completely absorbed in the separate experience their phone or screen offers. A 2018 survey of teens by Common Sense Media found that respondents’ favorite method of communication was texting, compared to a similar Common Sense Media survey in 2012, when teens reported preferring face-to-face communication. The 2018 survey also reported that a much higher percentage selected social media and video chat-ting as preferred communication methods than in the 2012 survey (Steinmetz, 2018). Connecting with peers via social media, texting, or video games can provide middle school students with opportunities to participate in developmentally appropriate social play; however, students who rely on these modes of socializing are not practicing reading visual cues (eye contact or facial expressions), auditory cues (tone of voice), or tactile cues (touch).

Although these implications can be concern-ing, Michael Bess, a historian of science at Vanderbilt University, frames this complicated situation in a helpful light. He likens technology such as smartphones and the Internet as revolutionary technologies on par with historical innovations in communications (such as the telephone) and transportation (such as the car) (Illing, 2018). Innovations that substantially change the way we live require that we consciously adjust our lives to incorporate them. In the classroom, this means that we:

  1. find a healthy balance between conventional play that relies on face-to-face communication and engagement with digital devices,
  2. recognize and teach the social and emotional skills students need so they can interact and play successfully, and
  3. provide students with opportunities to practice these skills through structured and unstructured play. 


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