A Drop of Ink: Losing Skills For Participating In A Democracy

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By Reed Anfinson


When we read Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods,” we learned of the damage what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder” can cause. 

“Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities,” Louv writes. 

Young people spend an obsessive amount of time with their electronic devices locked into social media. Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter are the woods, fields, and playgrounds of today’s youth. It can be an isolating existence.

Now we’ve learned the damage done by social media and less time spent outdoors is even more extensive than we thought - it threatens the health of America’s democracy. 

A generation of young people is growing up in a structured world with fewer opportunities to play outside. Communities have fewer places children can explore with friends. Too much of their time is supervised by others in “safe” spaces. It may seem absurd, but some states have found it necessary to pass laws that protect parents from prosecution for neglect for letting their 8- and 9-year-old children play in a park unwatched.

“Whatever else the effects of these shifts, they have likely impeded the development of abilities needed for effective self-governance for many young adults,” Jonathon Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business recently wrote an article published in The Atlantic magazine detailing how social media is a rot eating away at democracy’s foundation.

“Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat,” he says. 

While interacting in unsupervised play, children unconsciously “make up and modify rules according to varying conditions” and “for life in a democracy, few lessons are more valuable,” Steven Horowitz of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., writes. 

“Children also learn that conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation, and compromise,” he says. That consensus represents each side giving a little to ensure that a group of kids can go on playing with one another on that given day and the days that follow. This is another essential skill needed in a representative democracy.

These observations are not a new revelation. In 1835, French diplomat and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across America, observing how its new form of government was succeeding. “Children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined,” he wrote. “The same spirit pervades every act of social life…” in America.

Young people aren’t the only ones losing the skills and associations needed to build the skills required for a stable, functioning democracy. Many middle-aged adults have failed to develop these skills as the social and community organizations we once participated in fade from the American landscape. We are too self-involved rather than looking for ways in which we, together, can meet the needs of our communities.

“We’ve stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers, and stopped going to meetings,” Robert D. Putnam writes in his book Bowling Alone. “In short, Americans have been dropping out in droves, not merely from political life, but from organized community life generally. Year after year, fewer and fewer of us (take) part in the everyday deliberations that constitute grassroots democracy.”

In those clubs, committees, and social groups, citizens learned the skills of leadership, inclusiveness, and compromise.

 What is the danger of generations of young people failing to learn the skills required in a representative democracy? A swing toward totalitarian solutions.

“A generation prevented from learning these social skills would habitually appeal to authorities to resolve disputes and would suffer from a ‘coarsening of social interaction’ that would ‘create a world of more conflict and violence,’” Haidt quotes Horowitz. We can already see these trends becoming deeply embedded in our communities and country.

We are less tolerant of views that don’t align with ours. We are less civil towards one another. We look to those in authority, whether law enforcement or political office, to solve our problems with dictates rather than having citizens work out compromises.

 Elevated insecurity and anxiety lead young people to refuse allowing voices different from theirs to speak on college campuses. Just over a decade ago, speakers with a wide range of thoughts were generally allowed on college campuses; not today.

 “Students did not just say that they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said that those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence,” Haidt writes.

To combat these anti-democratic trends eroding our democracy, we need to delay when our children immerse themselves in social media, Haidt says.

“Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16, and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it,” he recommends.

 Responsibility, however, starts at home. More parents have to send their children outside to play. “Stop starving children of the experiences they most need to become good citizens: free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision,” Haidt writes.

And adults, start joining social, sports and community organizations again. Get involved. At the local level, interactions with one another build bridges between our differences and help us develop the skills fundamental to a healthy democracy.

We believe that a small-town life, with the many opportunities for participation it provides children inside and outside of school, would also be a healthy change and instill democratic skills.