Wellbeing + Code - Apps today, happy tomorrow?
Screens, games, apps and the internet are often seen as the ‘baddies’ in our lives - but can computer science improve our lives and wellbeing?
There’s lots of rather scary headlines about Artificial Intelligence taking over our lives and our jobs. Autonomous cars becoming our faceless taxi drivers. Robots caring for our ageing relatives. Apps organising our finances. Disembodied voices choosing our playlists. And no-one can feel comfortable about teenagers spending too long alone in their rooms on the internet - which does have threats and dangers. In this era of instant gratification it’s good to take a moment to take a deep breath, slow down and get things in perspective.
It is good to remind ourselves of what benefits the communications revolution has brought - and may deliver in the future. Many of the concepts that at first seem worrying or disempowering may well be the ideas that save us. For instance, autonomous cars with safety built into them, controlled maximum speeds and zero emissions will dramatically reduce accidents and pollution on the roads.
Meanwhile here’s a few things that are on the positive side of the story about the tech that affects our lives today - and may help us and our children.
We often worry about our children being on screens too much. Studies show that it’s not essentially the length of screen time that endangers mental health and behaviour, but that the content might. To balance our fears it’s useful to identify the four different types of screen time - creative, communicative, active and passive. There are positive aspects to each of these and using the mantra of ‘Measured, Monitored, Meaningful’ we can guide our children to a healthy relationships with their screens. Of course, it’s not just the kids that may be spending too long with their eyeballs fixed to the illuminated rectangle. Hold is a nice little app, good for teenagers and adults, that rewards you for for not using your phone. Great to help you instigate good habits like ‘no tech at the table’. Guidelines by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommend parents set clear boundaries on screen use, both for themselves and their children, and prioritise face-to-face interaction over online friendships in order to set a good example for the family.
While having dinner together every evening is the best way to catch up and connect with the family, technology has brought us some ways of delivering a face to face experience when we can’t actually be there. Facetime and Skype are wonderfully easy ways of making us feel we’ve almost actually been in someone’s presence. It can be a real comfort to university students away from home to have Mum in the kitchen with them for a chat - even if they are just on their iPad.
Yoga and meditation
It’s widely accepted that taking time out to focus on yourself is well worthwhile. If you’re juggling children, work, your partner and life in general - it’s hard to find that time. Something like Yoga with Adriene on YouTube is a lovely way of engaging with yoga every day, facilitated by our old friend the internet. This Summer our Fit for the Future coding camps will include a few minutes of meditation every day to help kids focus and reconnect with themselves. Meditation has been shown to improve concentration and behaviour in schools.
Re-connecting with nature
There’s research to show that time outside improves our levels of happiness. The Wild Network have a mission to grow what they call Wildtime . They’ve partnered with Persil to create the free Wild Explorers app, to help the whole family get outside. So, if you have 10 minutes with your four year old you could find a list of 14 things to do together ‘on your doorstep’. Immediately you and your child are reconnecting and really observing what’s going on in nature close at hand.
There is a concern about children’s diet and exercise. Simple tick charts you can make with your kids to track the fruit and veg they’ve eaten each day is a way to start ’codifying’ data and reward improvements. Change 4 Life apps, from Public Health England, are easy to use and super-kid friendly. Put the Food Scanner app in the hands of a six year old - and you’ll have an expert on the sugar, fat and salt content of your favourite packaged foods. On an idle stroll into my kitchen just now I discovered that Nutella has 56.3 sugar cubes per pack, is high in sugar and saturated fat and low in salt
‘Time to stand!’ Anyone with an Apple watch will recognise this command. Devices that measure movement and incentivise exercise do improve our fitness. Fitbit have a new tracker that promises to ‘Build healthy habits’ for kids. At our camps children have created their own pedometers - which of course they can’t wait to try out. Learning coding and getting moving!
Kids doing it for themselves
There’s no avoiding the truth, anxiety is a growing problem amongst young teens. Students at Richmond Park Academy in SW London had an idea for an app to help reduce teen anxiety. They developed their idea as a team and raised funds via Kickstarter. Their Life Mosaic app is now available and, as they say, lets you take a step back, reflect and create moments of personal insight. An example where a tech project has promoted teamwork, talking about real issues, using tech for good and entrepreneurship.
Technology as therapy
Some uses of technology are effective therapy. OxfordVR is working to develop a VR treatment for young people with social anxiety. When VR is done properly, the experience triggers the same psychological and physiological reactions as real-life situations. Their first live project to combat the fear of heights had results that are better than those expected with the best psychological intervention delivered face to face with a therapist.
Whilst none of us can time travel into the future to view the longer-term effect of today’s tech on this generation, we can do two things. One is to prepare our children as much as possible - stay engaged with the issues, keep an eye on what they are doing and provide them with the opportunities to be informed. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, listen to our children. Be aware of what they are actually saying, give them time and space to talk, ask them what makes them happy and respect their point of view.
At Cypher, we believe that by giving our students the fundamentals of computational thinking we are reducing their fear of the future and giving them the tools to succeed in any field they choose.
We want all children to be fluent with the technological languages that will facilitate their futures in a context that appeals to them - from fashion to engineering, art to mathematics, architecture to conservation.
We are running our Fit for the Future camps during the Summer holidays for children aged 5 - 12+. Including time for meditation, games and healthy snacks, the camps inspire children to learn the language of the future, coding, through learning the foundations of computational thinking and hands-on creative projects. Different themes each day will help our students get a positive approach to technology and develop their own ideas towards happiness and wellbeing.
©2019 Elizabeth Tweedale
Published in Absolutely Education - Summer 2019