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Face time, not Facebook time, essential for kids

01/23/2015 10:32 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT
Childhood obesity, too much screen time, sedentary lifestyles, and cyberbullying are the new threats to the health of young people. One solution is to tear the kids away from their devices and tell them to go outside and play … with other kids.

A recent study shows that children who play with each other in their own way are healthier than those who are supervised by their parents.

Go to a playground these days and you will likely see as many adults as children — and the children are not playing with each other. They are performing for their parent, who is watching every move. When the child reaches the top of a slide or climbing structure and yells, "Hey look at me!," the parent can often be seen running over to help them down the slide or crawl through the structure while cautioning, "Careful, don’t hurt yourself."

But watch kids playing with each other and you will see them running everywhere, chasing after each other, falling down, getting up and running some more. There is much more physical activity, because the pace is set by other kids, not by slower-moving parents.

Beyond the physical benefits, there are the social lessons learned when children invent games, yell out the rules, argue about the rules, then act them out.

They might even fight over something, but seldom does anyone really get hurt or emotionally traumatized. There is the odd skinned knee, but most disputes are resolved among themselves. These basic social skills of how to resolve differences and get along with others are essential throughout life.

Without that in-your-face human contact, young people are communicating electronically from a distance with greater and greater anonymity. And that detachment is the root of the problem. It enables anyone to behave badly while hiding.

The latest social chat app, Yik Yak, used by some schools, requires no name or password at all. So a person can hurl insults, slander, bullying comments - anything that would seldom be said face to face - without reprimand or repercussions.

In other words, social media can affect both the mental and physical health of young people.

To combat this social isolation, there are nature camps that bring children together to face challenges, such as hiking, canoeing, camping - activities that require teamwork and lots of exercise. But these camps, while great opportunities, are scheduled events that take kids away for only a week or two out of the year. The other 50 weeks of the year they are back in their chairs in front of a computer or hunched over devices, looking at their "friends" on a screen.

Play is the occupation of children. It’s their job. A lot more goes on during kids' games than physical activity. They learn about their abilities, about communication, about the world around them.

The more time they spend out in the real world, the less scary the world becomes.

So get the kids out the door and don’t follow them. You’ll be doing their bodies and their minds a big favour.

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