July 25, 2008

Steve Padilla

Bigger Isn’t Better

Things were different then. My daughter and her high school friends can hardly imagine I grew up without them: cell phones, laptops, ipods. “What do you mean?” they ask. You mean you couldn’t just “go on line”, enter a word or phrase and have a world of information at your fingertips? How about a dictionary with pages or an encyclopedia with volumes, – did you say searching by hand? What? Laughter is the response when I explain a really cool “video” or arcade game was one in which we stood in front of a small monitor and moved a control stick in one of only four directions, right, left, forward and backward as you helped a biting yellow circle with eyes gobble up dots. Pac what?

Technology and its many conveniences have always had a profound impact on our culture and behavior. Sure, it has been a long time since we figured out how to rub two sticks together and that fire can keep us warm or kill us. But in our long history on this planet it has only really been in our relative recent past that we could bring the voices of the world into our living rooms, and then the pictures to go with the voices. When that happened, the devices that connected us to the larger world were the objects of our affection. Ironically, as we tuned in to them, we often tuned out from one another, and became less active.

Today we can tune in to the whole world, and talk to one another eye to eye from opposite places on the globe all instantly and in real time. Our children can’t imagine it any other way, never mind a time with just simple radios or only three television channels. The music we listened to was what the DJ’s selected or what was recorded on the “record” or tapes we bought.

The arrival of radio and television certainly changed forever the evening habits of many families at home. But our daytime recreation usually involved having to find our own way to fun places real or imagined. Walking, biking or running blocks and long distances was just part of being a kid. Adventure and games involved getting up and moving, and fast let you be left behind. Today our world of technological toys, digital stimulation, instant access and real-time communication has fostered some new norms in the behavior of our children, which should worry us. The adventures and activities of today can be had without leaving the house, unplugging the earpieces or taking your eyes off the monitor. Our children are less active and more overweight as a result and it may bring them a lifetime of sickness.

Recent and on-going studies indicate our children are much less physically active then at any time in recent history. Their level of daily physical activity is decreasing on average beginning at puberty. As a consequence, an almost epidemic level of childhood obesity and the medical complications that flow from it is occurring. Latino youth are at higher risk for medical complications from this trend.

A report from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that at age 9 young children average three hours per day of physical activity. By age 15, that drops to just 49 minutes per day and less on weekends. For purposes of the study, “physical activity” does not mean working out, it means just getting up and moving. Scary. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control now call the rise in type-2 diabetes in children – once almost unheard of – now at epidemic proportions. This is diabetes due to being overweight, and having some genetic or family inclination towards to the disease. The long-term consequences can include renal disease, heart disease and stroke. The number of juveniles who are overweight and even obese is rising sharply at the same time.

We live in a culture where bigger and faster whether it be games, entertainment or food, is usually equated with better. We can and do work to raise community awareness and demand our schools provide good nutrition and proper physical and health education. But this is not enough. We must reduce our children’s interaction with electronics and encourage it instead with people. We must encourage physical activity in place of hours of television, ipods, or phones, and this all begins with our families and in our homes. For the first time in history, the possibility that our children will be in poorer health and even live shorter lives is very real. When it comes to the health of future generations, bigger isn’t better.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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