Digital Age Happiness, Relaxation and Leisure

Every culture in the world has divided waking hours of a human day into "formal" working hours, and "leisure hours" where they are not formally required to be "productively" engaged. Despite work being considered the most important predictor of happiness (a World Database of Happiness reports 585 correlations between work and happiness but only 91 correlations between leisure and happiness), research has often shown that leisure is as important for happiness and productivity as work. All work and no play is certainly known to make us dull people.

Leisure activities of children have always changed over time, but the digital age has probably changed it most in the least amount of time. Traditional forms of leisure activities such as outdoor play, travel, reading, indulging in the arts and socializing have been modified beyond recognition, or at least augmented by newer technology-induced activities. It would be an unfair accusation that technology has ruined leisure; it has merely changed (even productively) the way traditional leisure activities have been pursued over the years. For example, while in the past, one had to visit a library to read a variety of books, an entire library can now be carried in a glowing (or sometimes non-backlit) screen; thus, the activity of "reading" has not died, it has merely moved to a different medium. Similarly, Pew Research found that nearly three out of four adults prefer to watch a movie at home than at the theater, an activity that has been enabled by technological advancements. Pursuing certain hobbies (such as geneFmobicalogy) has become easier with the internet; 83 percent of online Americans have used the internet to pursue their hobbies in 2007. The digital age has also led to the creation of new hobbies, blogging being a classic example. Geocaching - a hide-and-seek type of game using an interactive website and GPS technology cannot even be imagined in an Internet-less world.

Some other leisure activities have changed for the worse. What used to be outdoor play time for children is increasingly being replaced by sedentary device-based gaming time. However, parents seem to not be overly concerned, despite media-induced concerns. A report from The NPD Group, titled "The Evolution of Play", noted that over half of parents surveyed believed that devices had no impact on play time of children at all. This 51 percent notwithstanding, the survey does point that most parents seek to establish a balance between the world of devices and apps, and traditional play. While most parents do recognize the educational potential of electronic devices, they are equally concerned that too much technology could foster laziness and unhealthy solitary experiences, or lead to "over-connectedness."

A serious adverse outcome of the insurgence of technology into a child's outdoor play time is deterioration of health. Dr Gavin Sandercock from Essex University found that the number of sit-ups 10-year-olds can do declined by 27.1 percent between 1998 and 2008, denoting a loss in strength that comes from increasingly sedentary existence. Their study also showed that increasing number of children can no longer hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars, a technique that children have learned in the past from climbing trees and hanging from branches.

But, there are contradictory reports as well. According to a study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine, exergaming can raise children's activity levels to meet guidelines for moderate-intensity activity level. There are conflicting reports on the effect of gaming on psychiatric health as well. A research paper in Pediatrics shows that children and young adults who overdo TV and video games are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a variety of attention-span disorders. Dr. Ned Hallowell of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, and retired professor from Harvard Medical School, calls gadget-induced attention deficit in children as "pseudo-ADHD" to differentiate it from genetically derived ADHD. The good news is that pseudo-ADHD is caused by behavior patterns and can be reversed by behavior modifications, aka, restriction of screen time.

Another unsavory effect of technology on leisure is that it has blurred the boundary between work and play. Technology has removed the barrier between home and place of work (or school) and the former is no longer only a place of simple leisure. It has transformed into a place to study, work, exercise, listen to music, watch movies and even socialize. Communication technology such as email and smartphones exacerbate impatience and anxiety in that one is on-call 24/7 and leisure is not simply leisure anymore.

Despite general unrest about the adverse effects of technology on leisure and play time, the idea of mixing play and technology is not new. Toys have always been tools of play for children, and digital developments of the 21st century have merely brought electronics into these tools. Electronic toys and digital games have, according to Dr. Jeffrey H. Goldstein, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands, become a child's first hands-on introduction to the world, giving children an opportunity to "learn about technology as well as with technology." It is logical to believe that parental guidance is absolutely necessary in the use of electronic gadgets/devices/screen by children for leisure activities.

There have been scientific studies to optimize the amount of screen time for children (e.g., here and here). Such studies take into account demographic factors such as the age of the child, race and socioeconomic status of parents and education levels of both child and parents. Learning and behavior of children is a direct result of observation. Given that 83 percent parents of children age six and under use some sort of screen media in a typical day -- spending, on average, an hour and a half watching TV and an hour and a half using a computer -- it is natural for children to overuse technology as well. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that children whose parents use screen media for more than two hours per day spend an average of 28 minutes more per day watching TV compared to children of parents who watch less than two hours per day. It is thus, up to the parents to analyze the benefits and risks of technology-driven leisure of their own and their children's lives and limit tech time accordingly.

Writing Credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a parent who lives perilously close to the intersection of parenting and technology, and a Mobicip blogger.

Mobicip provides robust and effective parental controls for tablets such as the iPad and Kindle Fire, in addition to many types of smartphones, tablets and computers.