Nine-year-old Darian Sund doesn’t mind that his parents prohibit him from going outside to play without supervision. Defeating animated antagonists and overcoming challenges in the elaborate universe of Nintendo’s “Legend of Zelda” fantasy action video game is infinitely more exciting.
“I’m more of an indoor person,” Darian said.
Internet, cellphones, social media and other technological advancements have transformed the lives of boys since their fathers grew up. Today’s boys are more tech-savvy, less inclined toward risk-taking and closer to their parents than mom and dad were to the grandparents. They also face distinct challenges: less access to physical play, higher obesity rates and less tolerance at school for their boisterous energy and short attention spans.
This is the second half of a two-part series looking at the growing-up experience of today’s children and early adolescents, ages 8-13. This installment on boys is a follow-up to a story about girls in June.
The age group is the end of the Millennial generation or Generation Y, according to some generational theorists. Others place them in a new generation dubbed everything from Generation Z to the Homeland Generation. Regardless of label, there are nearly 33,000 boys ages 5-14 growing up in Clark County, according to the Census Bureau.
Unlike his parents, Darian, of Walnut Grove, has never known life without computers and cellphones. The 9-year-old is more comfortable typing on his own computer to complete his homework than writing the assignment by hand, said his father, David Sund.
“I would be called a digital immigrant,” said Don Ludwig, sociology professor at Vancouver’s Clark College. “Kids of today are labeled digital natives. This is their world. It’s all they know.”
Generational theorist Neil Howe classifies today’s 8- through 13-year-olds as “late wave Millennials.” They exhibit more pronounced characteristics of the Millennial generation than the “first wave,” including an intense desire to be part of a group. They are closer to their parents than previous generations, in part because they’re bound by common interests, Howe said.
Their hunger for sense of community has inspired and fueled social media and text messaging, said Howe, who has co-authored eight books on American generations, including “Millennials Rising.”
Sense of community
Kids depends on technology to stay connected to their friends 24/7. They spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes per day using media, an hour and 19 minutes more than in 1999, according to a 2010 study by Kaiser Family Foundation.
“The charge you hear today is kids are addicted to social media, Internet and cellphones,” Howe said. “It’s not technology; it’s their friends and groups they’re addicted to.”
Kids also are surprisingly conventional, Howe said. They’re close to their parents and don’t mind spending time with them, he said.
While technology provides a close-knit social network, the public nature of Internet has intensified children’s social anxiety and pressure to conform. Anything a child does or says could be recorded by their friends on social media and passed on to friends of friends or an entire school campus.
“It’s more intense with the information age,” said Ludwig. “Everything is in everyone’s face. There is very little space to have privacy and go backstage.”
Online social networks reflect the lack of anonymity present in traditional societies when people stayed in the same place all their lives, and everyone knew each other’s business, said generational theorist Howe. That can be hard on boys, who typically need more space and alone time to rejuvenate than girls do, Ludwig said.
Wary of risk
Lack of anonymity has contributed to another characteristic of today’s boys: they’re more averse to risk than previous generations.
“You can’t do something risky and not expect it to be brought up (on social media),” Howe said.
Parenting styles and rules-oriented schools also dampen impulses to take risks, he said.
Just 23 years ago, when David Sund was his son’s age, he used to ride his bike alone for miles through Seattle to visit an arcade or a friend’s house.
“I don’t know if I’m just paranoid, but I don’t feel comfortable letting (Darian) go too far,” David Sund said. “I don’t know if I am conditioned (to be protective). You hear so much bad stuff. I wouldn’t let (Darian) do anything that I did when I was kid.”
That illustrates the typical practices of today’s parents, Howe said. Parents, who tend to be Generation X-ers, are more protective than baby boomers were.
Gen X, Americans born roughly between 1965 and 1979, commonly grew up as latchkey children fending for themselves while their parents worked. Their backlash against baby boomers’ nonchalant parenting style has ushered in one of “the greatest eras of child protection in history,” Howe said. A barrage of media reports about child abductions, sex abuse and other crimes against children also instill fear about what could happen to children if they’re unsupervised.
The number of family households without a father in Clark County has gone up nearly 40 percent since 2000, according to the Census Bureau. However, that doesn’t necessarily reflect how involved fathers are in their children’s lives, Howe said. Gen X fathers are more willing to make sacrifices for their children and make spending time with them children a priority, Howe said.
That has had a significant impact on boys, who are especially influenced by the presence of their fathers. Boys who have a father figure in their lives are less likely to engage in delinquent and other risky behavior, according to a study this year by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at Melbourne University in Australia. The study examined statistics from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States.
For instance, juvenile violent crime has decreased by 74.6 percent between 1994 and 2009, according to the Department of Justice. Boys account for about 70 percent of juvenile arrests.
Anti-risk sentiment combined with entertainment on computers, cellphones and video game consoles have driven boys indoors. That type of sedentary lifestyle can contribute to two epidemics that affect kids today: obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
“There are video games that are entire digital worlds,” Howe said. “Do you really want to go into an empty lot and throw dirt balls? It’s not that interesting anymore.”
Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC. That drives up cases of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
ADHD is characterized by inattention and impulsive behavior that are developmentally inappropriate. Boys are especially prone to the disorder. They’re more than twice as likely to be diagnosed to the neurobehavioral disorder than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases in children ages 4-17 jumped by 22 percent between 2003 and 2007, according to the CDC.
Some experts attribute today’s sedentary lifestyle and high-pressure schools to the skyrocketing diagnoses of ADHD and suggest some diagnoses may be false.
Rob Miller, a fourth-grader teacher at Columbia Valley Elementary School in Evergreen Public Schools said tolerance for boy’s boisterous energy in the classroom has eroded with the advent of high stakes testing.
The tests are mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Schools are under increased pressure to get students to perform well on tests, which begin in elementary school. Low scores can result in penalties for the school district, including loss of federal funding.
Fourth-graders in this state are required to take the Measurement of Student Progress in reading, math and writing, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The reading and math tests take one day each, while the writing test takes two days. In the Evergreen school district, fourth-graders also take an additional three standardized tests in reading and three in math.
The high pressure environment and fewer resources in the classroom due to the recession has drained some teachers’ patience for nonconformity or misbehavior.
“It takes boys a little longer to develop,” Miller said. “It used to be if a boy had hyper energy in the classroom, it was no big deal. With high stakes testing, it become more important to have boys in their seats. It is detrimental to them because it’s not in a boy’s nature to sit still.”
Darian was diagnosed with and treated for ADHD in the second grade because he had difficulty focusing and had outbursts at school, David Sund said.
“I was far worse than my son,” David Sund said. “If I had grown up in this age, I would be so medicated right now.”
Teachers and parents may turn to doctors to curb a boy’s rambunctious behavior, Miller said. That, in turn, may fuel the rate of ADHD diagnosis, some experts say.
Dr. Phillip McGuiness, a pediatrician at the Vancouver Clinic, said he doesn’t believe ADHD is a social construct. However, some of today’s environmental factors could contribute to an increase in the disorder, McGuiness said.
Children with ADHD usually have a genetic predisposition toward the disorder, McGuiness said. The fast pace of TV shows, video games and even family life, however, could be ADHD triggers, he said.
Boys may feel particularly stifled by today’s school demands and structure and as a result, are more likely than girls to dislike school, said Howe, the generational theorist.
Since 1988, girls have surpassed boys in postsecondary enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Despite these academic and health challenges, today’s boys are more likely to have a positive outlook than their predecessors. Their generation believes they’ll be prosperous despite the economic downturn, Howe said. They are more likely to wait it out for the job of their dreams, and they’re content to live at home while they do so because of their close relationship with parents, he said.
At age 9, Darian already can envision his future. His aspiration isn’t all that surprising.
“I want to be a video game designer,” he said. “I really want to be that.”