Disembodied Electronic Spaces
Discussing electronic technology in a book about the senses may seem counter-intuitive. However, today’s urban children are immersed in media that are altering their relationship to space in ways our species has never encountered before. A new spatial dimension has been introduced by our modern times. Electronic technologies have altered the nature of our social lives and of spatial energy in important ways, adding new communication and energetic signals to space, in the process, altering its quality.
On the positive side, research on children and electronic media has shown that they spend a lot of time in virtual spaces where social life is being redefined. While our social contexts have always been complex ecosystems in a state of dynamic flux, they now are intertwined with a virtual social life. My own research in this area has found that digital environments have become hacking spaces where children are experimenting and learning about alternative forms of identity, communities, gaming, economic and social activities. It is also clear that digital life influence physical life (Bal, Nolan and Seko, 2013)[i].
Children are using simulation games to learn about things they do not have access to in the real world. Some use these as a form of meditation, therapy and/or as a means to be alone and to reduce their physical sensory inputs. As we will explore in chapter 8, digital media have become a type of virtual forest where some children are finding solutions to their sensory overloads, easing their anxieties and in some cases, learning social skills.
Children are exploring their identities in these spaces, which in turn influence how they present themselves in physical social life. The disembodied nature of these technologies can act as a filter to simplify sensory and social learning within a complex situation. I have witnessed my son doing so. He has loved soccer since very little but found playing too overwhelming and would refuse to play in a league as it meant too much new stimulation. When I introduced a WII gaming system into our home, he began to play soccer with the system. Within a few weeks, he asked to join a physical soccer team. I came to understand that he used the game to learn the rules of soccer and the type of behaviors that are acceptable and appropriate before playing. He had simplified the learning process of a complex spatially social and sensory situation. For a child with heightened sensory processing abilities, a soccer game, or any team game for that matter, is difficult to navigate. The complexity comes from the fact that there are layers of rules and stimuli to process all at once in order to play. A child must simultaneously understand the rules of the game, the social rules of the situation, navigate the sensory overload of a team of children all moving simultaneously, a coach giving directions, an unknown space with variation in temperature, heat, sound and visual cues, control his body while keeping track of other players’ bodies in motion and follow the ball.
When not knowing the game, such an experience was overwhelming. By using a digital game, he simplified the sensory situation, deconstructed the play and learned step-by-step enough elements to not be overwhelmed in the physical situation. By bypassing most of the embodied and spatial sensory input he could focus on learning one element at a time. Once he honed the game, its social rules and practice strategies, he felt comfortable enough to then deal with the other sensory inputs of the situation. I came to realize that technology could become a tool to help children learn some aspects of a complex sensory and social life. A notion we will explore in chapter 8.
Another important aspect of children’s use of digital media emerges from their ability to actively co-construct media artifacts. Although often tied to corporate/institutional culture, these activities give them a sense of voice and self-determination.
On the negative side, it is known that mobile technologies use electromagnetic radiation. According to the World Health Organization:
“Mobile phones communicate by transmitting radio waves through a network of fixed antennas called base stations. Radiofrequency waves are electromagnetic fields, and unlike ionizing radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays, can neither break chemical bonds nor cause ionization in the human body. Mobile phones are often prohibited in hospitals and on airplanes, as the radiofrequency signals may interfere with certain electro-medical devices and navigation systems”.[ii]
We do not know the long-term effect of exposure to computers and mobile devices. This has leaded some national radiation advisory authorities to recommend measures to minimize exposure to their citizens. The amount of electromagnetic radiation in homes and urban centers is increasing, without much knowledge of their effect on our health. Additionally, most computers are full of chemicals, which also can affect our health. Finally, Urban pollution, computers and other electronic devices also affect air quality. To appreciate this, we must look at what ions are. When an atom is attracted to another atom because it has an unequal number of electrons and protons, the atom is called an ION. If the atom has more electrons than protons, it is a negative ion, or ANION. If it has more protons than electrons, it is a positive ion.
Anions are believed to be important to our health. Researchers have demonstrated that a lack of these negative ions disturbs neurohormonal regulation and pituitary insufficiency (Goldstein and Arshavskaya, 1997)[iii]. Researchers have also discovered that negative ions are able to help protect the body from induced physical stress (Livanova et al, 1998)[iv]. Negative ions are “biologically active and that they do affect the body’s circadian rhythmicity.”(Reilly and Stevenson, 1993)[v].
According to WebMd, Ion researcher Michael Terman, PhD, of Columbia University, found that in people with winter and chronic depression, negative ion generators relieve depression as much as antidepressants[vi].
While these ions are abundant in nature, they are limited in cities. According to seismologist T. Neil Davis:
“ Outdoor air contains about a thousand positive and negative charges (ions) within each cubic centimeter. Cosmic rays coming into the earth from the sun and elsewhere break apart air molecules and thereby create much of the ionization that exists in the air. Since more cosmic rays come in at the high latitudes, the high-latitude air normally has a higher proportion of ionized air molecules or molecular clusters. However, in cities and in confined spaces such as offices, processes take place to reduce the number of ions[vii].
In hermetic homes with little ventilation in the winter negative ions are eliminated from the environment. This could be creating changes in a child’s neurohormonal regulation.
These issues suggest that a sensory health model must seriously consider the role of technology in a highly sensitive child’s life. A balanced use of digital media and other technology can help a child learn safely about his or her senses. On the other hand, it is also important to consider the amount of media children are emerged in. Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of digital media to help children learn about their senses.
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Next: Chapter 5: Conclusion
[i] Bal, A., Nolan, J. and Seko, Y. (2014). Melange of Making: Bringing Children’s Informal Learning Cultures To The Classroom. DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Megan Boler and Matt Ratto eds. MIT Press.
[ii] WHO. “Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones”. Fact sheet N°193. WHO Media Center. Reviewed October 2014. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/
[iii] Goldstein N, Arshavskaya TV. Is atmospheric superoxide vitally necessary? Accelerated death of animals in a quasi-neutral electric atmosphere. Z Naturforsch [C] 1997 May-Jun;52(5-6):396-404.
[iv] Livanova LM, Levshina IP, Nozdracheva LV, Elbakidze MG, Airapetiants MG. The protective action of negative air ions in acute stress in rats with different typological behavioral characteristics. Zh Vyssh Nerv Deiat Im I P Pavlova 1998 May-Jun;48(3):554-7.
[v] Reilly T, Stevenson IC. An investigation of the effects of negative air ions on responses to submaximal exercise at different times of day. J Hum Ergol (Tokyo) 1993 Jun;22(1):1-9.
[vi] Mann, Denise (2002). “Negative Ions Create Positive Vibes”. WebMD, Health and Balance. May 6, 2002.
[vii] Davis, Neil, T. (1981). Negative-Ions and Computers. Article #505. Alaska Science Forum. September 25, 1981.