Electronic Poisoning

Summer of 2007: My kids hated camping and hiking in the Redwoods.

We got them on the spongy trails with the giant trees and they said, “This is boring. When can we go home? This is stupid.”

One of the most glorious places on planet Earth failed to move my seven- and nine-year-old daughters. We even let them lead us on the trail, hoping that would spark a drive to explore. Had we already lost them?

I lost the competition to attract and fascinate their minds: the digital world beat me. If I’d whipped out a laptop and set it on a bench amongst this magnificent antediluvian, presaurian, banana-slugfilled landscape, they would have whooped with joy.

All I could think, as we headed around the trails and sustained our harangue of “uncoolness” was that they were irreversibly electronically poisoned. 

Where did I go wrong?

Not even preteens, but raised in Southern California on too much TV, starting with toddler day care, my daughters were already beginning to show signs of fashion sense and self-objectification. My seven-year-old loved flats and miniskorts. I’d bought educational CD Roms, but they gravitated to programs that allowed them to imitate and model urban life, like constructing whole SIMS villages and families. SIMs houses and their occupants were beautiful, except my daughter insisted on giving the dad a “hair peninsula,” which is what she called that spare remaining strip on my husband’s formerly prolific forehead.

Nothing on TV or in their software taught them to explore nature or told them that’d be cool, fashionable.

Whenever I sent them out in the neighborhood, on walks, they were the only ones out. Every parent in my generation seemed to think that if their kid went out to ride a bike or explore a canyon, that kid would be the one abducted and tortured. I sent my daughter once to walk to her friend’s house, and her mother, on the phone, panicked and sent her teens out to escort my child. I felt like a jerk.

I did walk to school with one of my daughters, and we held hands and watched birds, smelled morning flowers, chatted all the way through sixth grade. So many parents drove past us, rushing to work, smiling at us, though–some looking like they wanted to cry.

I lamented “electronic poisoning” to my hiking buddy, Brent, as we traversed seventeen miles into the backcountry of the Grand Canyon last year. He’d asked why my kids didn’t like to go hiking with me–not that they could handle what we were doing, attempting Cheyava Falls at the only time of year when the 800-foot waterslide is cranking–if you can handle the scramble to even get near the mist.

At base camp, Brent whipped out his backpacking reading material. The Economist, May 2010. I, for one, had brought Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Brent showed me research cited from the Kaiser Family Foundation, that American kids were spending more than seven and a half hours with media each day. “Into that space they packed an astonishing 10 hours and 45 minutes of consumption,” the article went on. And that’s where I blanked out.

One afternoon, on my walk to pick up my daughter from grade school (my oldest daughter refused the walk, horrified at the social implications), I listened to NPR, a book review on Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” and thought, ‘mmhmm, thank you, Mr. Louv, I already know. I’ve experienced this and realize, Houston, that we do have a problem.’

Who is going to write software to inspire kids to get out in the dirt, the real dirt, to explore, and by extension, protect our planet? Not just wilderness, which is already shrinking, but protect Nature, of which we are irreversibly–undigitally, unelectronically–but fundamentally and most desperately part? 

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