The digital noise of today’s silence

Writing this article for CRIN is Pedro Hartung, a children’s rights lawyer and researcher and Advocacy Coordinator of the Alana Institute’s Absolute Priority programme.

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Travelling with children is no longer the same. Not long ago, we needed emotional stamina and a repertoire of games involving vehicle plates, clouds and colours to face hours of travel in a car, train, bus or plane. However, something has changed. The trips I have taken recently with children are less animated and I am hearing less and less the (in)famous question: "Are we there yet?"

Cruising in silence

What I see and hear more often now are glazed eyes, closed ears sealed by headphones, and immobilised bodies closely following the marathon of YouTubers narrating games and advertising products on their channels. These are uploaded on platforms purposely created with a persuasive design, such as autoplay and the endless scroll down, able to get any audience hooked, especially children who are in a peculiar stage of development and are easily attracted by a shiny black mirror.

Even children's hearty laughter, and the aching cheeks and bellies that come with it, have been replaced by emoticons in virtual messages. Parents, in a way, are happy that now they can enjoy a car ride without a non-stop, high-pitched sing-along.

But wait! I am not one of those people who nostalgically believe that the childhood of the past is better than the childhood of the present and that technology is responsible for all the ills we have in our society today. Childhood, as a social, cultural and political category, are different in every community and historical time. Opportunities and risks have existed in every period of human history, including in traditional media.

Weighing the change

The opportunities afforded by the advent of digital media are diverse, such as access to information and its different sources, contact with cultural diversity on our planet, and the freedom to express and disseminate children's voices more easily and their visions about the worlds they belong to.

However, the phenomenon of children’s physical silence in the presence of screens, or the replacement of children's speech with toys that speak for them has intrigued me and, in a way, frightened me.

All child development theories point to the need for sense experience for the development of various cognitive and emotional abilities, such as motor skills, executive functions, balance, touch, smell, and so on. Still, recent neuroscience research exposes the need for a constant affective and responsive bond, one made only by human interaction, for the healthy development of the brain during early childhood which lays the foundation for the acquisition of innumerable cognitive and emotional abilities, including language itself.

Research by the University of Washington has pointed out that language learning requires a context of social interaction, indicating that babies do not learn the phonemes of a language (units of sound that distinguish one word from another) when exposed to the same content transmitted by screens. In other words, there is no way to develop language without interacting with another human being through speech; and there is no dialogue if there are no physically-present speaking bodies.

Even traditional physical toys are getting internet-connected models. Inside the world of children at play, their imagination and creativity in silent play are now interrupted by supposedly artificially intelligent devices that speak thanks to opaque algorithms and unclear values. For instance, this is the case with Hello Barbie (also known as ‘Barbie spy’) which, in addition to conducting a conversation with the child on subjects such as fashion, shopping and their favourite colours, it violates the privacy and intimacy of children's play by tracking children's personal data which is then collected by the companies behind the product. Not only this, but the toy has a feature allowing parents to publish their child’s interaction with the doll on social media.

One thing I learned from these toys: the noisier the toy is, the greater the child’s silence.

Filling the silence

We live in the era of silent monologue of machines, screens and toys which, despite trying to emulate a conversation, lack the quality of emotions and affection, something that’s fundamental to human development.

In the face of this reality, we need to ask ourselves hard questions and find a balance in children’s use of digital media and the protection of their rights on different types of media. After all, it’s not all bad; without a doubt, technology can promote digital citizenship and rights.

When it comes to responsibility, we need to stop blaming only parents for buying their children such toys; corporations also have a serious responsibility. We need the products and services to be designed with input from specialists who understand the sensitivity of child development. We need digital spheres free from marketing to children and devoid of commercial and personal data exploitation.

But we also need to welcome and give children space to be noisy, talkative, restless and also creatively silent in the physical world. We need to get past the idea that children should be seen and not heard, a concept entrenched in the word infant itself from the Latin word infans meaning “unable to speak”. And without a doubt, children can speak and do have their own voices. It’s us who should learn how to hear them better.