Volume:7, Issue: 2

Aug. 1, 2015

From the World Wide Web to a spider thread: How to work with urban children
Stepanov, Pavel V. [about] , Stepanova, Irina V. [about]

KEYWORDS: value orientations, ecophobia, socialization, character formation, child-adult community.

ABSTRACT: The paper looks into problems of schoolchildren’s value orientations’ transformation related to the development of modern technological civilization, its causes and ways of pedagogical intervention.


Several years ago a rather odd incident took place in an average school of an average city. Actually, it could have happened in any other school. Second graders were talking with their teacher about friends and friendship. The teacher was surprised to hear that most students considered the computer to be one of their closest friends.

Such stories have become common, and adults’ reaction rarely shows more than just a condescending smile. But it is the very word common, which should cause our concern in this matter. Isn’t this a symptom of some infirmity which has infected our urbanized society? And it is not just computer or Internet addiction, which is much spoken about by doctors, psychologists, teachers, and parents. We seem to have a different problem. It is much wider-spread and more serious. It is the problem of our excessive reliance on technology and, as a result, the problem of our alienation from nature.

The core of the issue

Artificial, technological, and practically dead world is gradually replacing the living world, and not only in terms of its geographical space (natural landscapes, which are vital for the natural habitat of most biological species, are shrinking under the attack of the urban environment suitable only to one of the species) but also, what is even worse, in terms of our young people’s outlook. The amount of time which urban kids spend in front of the computer, TV, game console or other gadgets exceeds the time spent with one another. Interaction with gadgets replaces human interaction, interaction with animals and nature. Affection and passion for technology push out the affection and love for life. In a young person’s head technology gains more value than the value of any living creature! Nature is perceived as some alien world – unknown and scary.

American educator David Sobel (1998) calls the term “ecophobia” to refer to our alienation from nature. Ecophobia is our fear of wild animals, spiders, snakes, microbes, and dirt. This is the fear of finding ourselves away from the blessings of civilization: electricity, transport, medical help, or mobile communication. In its extreme, this is the modern person’s fear of being in a place where there is no shower, TV or (Oh, my God!) air conditioning. As Sobel explains, ecophobia is the fear of leaving one’s house. The symptoms of ecophobia seem to reveal themselves even at the physiological level – for example, people start having headaches when being exposed to fresh air; or silence might bother us so much that we instinctively switch on the radio or a music player.

Just like any other social illness, techno-addiction and ecophobia are potentially dangerous to a human being and a society at large. Why?

First of all, and this has been already mentioned, the danger is in the young people’s value orientations’ transformation when in a youngster’s head technology gains more value than the value of any living creature. Alas, some symptoms of this phenomenon are present everywhere around us.

Secondly, people’s general physical and psychological condition is getting worse. Stresses, neuroses, poorer eyesight, postural disorder, and many other “illnesses of the civilized world” have been largely caused by our excessive reliance on all kinds of technological gadgets along with the alienation from nature. Besides, we are all well aware of the positive influence of nature on people’s physical and psychological condition. Colors of the morning sky and September forest, a salty smell of the sea calming down after the storm, the scents of the blossoming meadow grass, the view of the snow capped mountains, sounds of the creek purling over the stones… Is it really possible to replace all this with the Blue-ray images, advanced air fresheners or mp3 sounds from the state-of-the-art stereo phones? A trembling spider’s thread in the forest has hardly anything to do with the World Wide Web.

Thirdly, people are losing their ability to survive. What if there was a blackout in the whole city for at least a week? No TV or computer, no way to heat lunch in a microwave oven, most food in the fridge would be off. No hot or cold water – actually, no water at all. The sewerage would be not functioning. It would also be a problem to leave your apartment (especially if you have little children or you are far from being young) as the elevator would not be working. Traffic would be in total collapse. No ground or underground public transportation, only cars hopelessly stuck in traffic jams. Being a metropolis dweller you would have no opportunity to get to work. Anyway, there would be no place to go as movie theatres or stadiums would be closed. Most stores would be closed while prices in the few open ones would be skyrocketing. It would be scary to leave your house at night, as streets would be dark. What would happen to us after a week? Food and water shortages, problems with fresh air and health… Dwelling places would be teeming with rats and insects, and the smell would be awful… and the criminal behavior would probably be on the rise. We would face the problem of survival. Social conflicts… We rely so much on technology that we just would not survive without it. Urban environment has enslaved us so much, that it would be very hard for us to maintain our own health or dignity without it. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has obviously shown that such a potential danger is far from the realm of science fiction.

Fourthly, we are destroying our own natural habitat. We seem to forget that our natural habitat is not glass, concrete and metal but soil, water, and plants. Consumerism, which is currently typical for our society, dictates us the global principle that states, “make use of something and, when you are satisfied, get rid of it”. This principle (established largely thanks to the population’s increasing welfare in big cities and the fact that technical innovations are rapidly getting out of date) has influenced our attitude to nature. Our growing consumer appetites make us utilize nature as if it were some kind of home appliance or electronic toys: make the most of it and… get a new item. Instead of living in harmony with nature, earnestly protecting and preserving it for our future generations, and ourselves we behave as if we are in a huge shopping and recreation center. For most of us a forest glade, a river bank or a sea beach primarily serve as places for a picnic, night dance party, SUV or wet bike races. The amount of litter in the forest is a clear indicator of how far this place is from a settlement or a road.

What causes increased ecophobia?

Just like any other social illness, techno-addiction and ecophobia are rapidly spreading among children and young people. Why? In our search for the answer we are making a crucial mistake: to blame technical progress for everything. Consequently, we are unable to change things, progress is irreversible, and so it is our fate. But this is not true! There is no direct link between the technological civilization and young people’s ecophobia1. It is indirect, mediated by social processes in early- and teenage communities which, in their turn, shape the young people’s outlook. The nature of such communities, their number, variety, appeal and influence of adults – all of these together define the scale of this social illness in question. Consequently, these communities serve as “information channels” influencing a modern child.

A child growing up in a city is bound to feel connected with other city dwellers. Therefore, s/he also adopts certain social settings that are most obvious and common in the daily behavior of the community. One of those settings encourages consumption. This setting is probably the most characteristic of our modern multinational, multi-religious and multicultural metropolis. Outdoor advertising, TV, shopping and recreational infrastructure make the child part of this consumer society. Wherever they go, children read, see, and hear information about discounts, sales, goods’ liquidations, “crazy days”, offers to purchase three items for the price of two, celebrities’ (stars’) interviews concerting their smart phone preferences: “No normal girl [advanced teenager / reasonable housewife] could live without this gadget… Indeed, you are a looser if you don’t have it.” All these media settings are backed up by a typical behavior of city dwellers actively involved in this whirlpool of goods and services. As a result, being part of this community a child can’t but adopt such an outlook and behavior patterns.

Different social groups make their negative contribution to young people’s techno-addiction and ecophobia. Let us, for example, look deeper at groups of teenagers. A friend of mine once told me about her own children whose peers from the same neighborhood rejected their participation in the game only because her children did not have a Sony PlayStation device. And I believe this kind of stories is not unique. More and more conversations among teenagers is centered around video games, game consoles and software, cell phones and other gadgets. And this is not enough – practically communication has become predominantly virtual (just think of groups in social nets).

Regretfully, such settings, resulting in an early age techno-addiction and ecophobia, are imposed on children even in families. Look around at your own dwelling place: how many TV sets are there? Once I overheard a parent saying that she has (in comparison with a number of rooms) two more TV sets which made me think that one of them was in the kitchen and the other should be in the bathroom. It is not difficult to imagine how family members spend their evening: a father is online; a mother is watching just another sitcom episode, and their child in hanging out playing his/her favorite computer game or chatting. The number of such families is constantly growing. For many urban families nature is reduced to the reservation of city parks while for some nature means virtually nothing more than BBC or National Geographic documentaries. Scents of nature are replaced by air fresheners. Instead of secret sounds of the night forest we are woken up by sudden attacks of somebody’s car alarm. Instead of wooden houses, we live in houses cramped with furniture having veneer or film finish which looks like wood. Even our small summer cottages, which used to be our “window” to nature, increasingly tend to resemble urban apartments with their high metal fences, concrete paths, lodges clad in plastic siding and inevitably stuffed with TV sets, computers, and game consoles.

Conclusions or our suggestions

What could be set instead such type of socialization of our children? We believe that educators and parents who are concerned with this problem should develop such social groups of children and adults that would cultivate other values, another way of life, another outlook – different from that of techno-addiction and ecophobia. Let us take a closer look at this. What exactly may be offered to prevent techno-addiction and ecophobia?

Firstly, we should try to avoid any contacts with the source of “infection”. This prescription is vital during any epidemic. We trust that children should be protected, as much as possible, from any influence of excessive consumerism ideology, which actually causes techno-addiction and ecophobia. Of course, it is not in our power to ban aggressive advertising or stop consumer rush. But we are quite able to teach a media literacy level with our children, explain them the psychological mechanisms of advertising, show the structure of modern economy (based on increased consumer demand and technologies to artificially age the purchased items2), tell the children about possible alternatives, identify ways and forms of how consumers/TV viewers/voters are manipulated, and, finally, teach children how to resist and stand against such manipulations.

Secondly, we must follow the regime of treatment. When we are ill or an epidemic is raving around us, doctors insist on the regime of treatment as the key factor to make us better. If adults, who are significant in the child’s life and who are part of the child’s social community, build their daily routine in a special way, abide to certain principles, set and impose on themselves certain rules and restrictions, if the adult’s motives are open to the child, then s/he will sooner or later start keeping to this daily routine, certainly, not in everything, but there will be a start for sure. In the family and at school, in class and during after-school activities, guided tours, hikes, trips, walks, theater or museum visits, etc., parents and teachers may try to implement simple rules of eco-consistent daily life including the following: be moderate in consumption of goods and services which are really necessary for life; do not purchase wild plants, items made of fur and skin of wild animals, disposable items or products of companies which do irreparable damage to the environment; do not take advertising flyers, catalogues or invitations from street vendors; do not use plastic bags when shopping; efficiently use water, natural gas, electricity, and paper supplies; try to collect litter left in the wild by other people; do not avoid manual labor; learn to do and make something with your own hands – this will help you to learn the real value of stuff.

Thirdly, we must spend more time in the open and out in nature. This helps to realize over and over again that we do not live in only the material world, full of some subjects. It is important to spend time together as a family in places which make it possible for our children to see nature as it is rather than its refined image made by producers of wild life documentaries. Our children must see real nature, not glamorous but truly appealing with its simplicity, not frightening by its unpredictability but requiring to be just careful, vast but also extremely fragile and vulnerable. To examine, together with the child, tracks of a wild boar on the sandbank, to watch a snake cautiously crossing the forest path, to observe a bloody feast of a bird of prey, to hold a tiny wind-blown nest – all this may be done going just a few kilometers away from the city. And let children walk (rather than taking a bus or a car that allows us to only look through the window into the world of nature), to find ourselves inside nature, to feel it, touch it, and sense its space, shape, colors and scents of this living world. Long distance and weekend hikes, multi-day camping, field trips and expeditions – all these will do our children and us a lot of good. They will allow keeping a vital perception that nature is not some hostile world but our only true habitat.

When we feel nature with own noses, skin, lungs, bone marrow,… the sense of our own significance starts to get dissolved in something bigger. We perceive ourselves rightful participants of the biosphere, and this is an amazing feeling! Instead of being just an individual with a house, a car and a checkbook, we finally understand what we are and where we are (De Graaf, Wann, & Naylor, p. 298). 


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This publication was supported by the grant from the Russian Humanitarian Science Foundation, Project # 14-06-00088.

2 Stepanov, Pavel V. PhD, [In Russian: Павел Валентинович Степанов], senior research fellow, The Center of the Strategy and Theory of Education, “Strategy of the Education Development Institute of The Russian Academy of Education,” Moscow, Russia; Stepanova, Irina V., PhD, [In Russian: Ирина Викторовна Степанова], senior research fellow, The Center of the Strategy and Theory of Education, “Strategy of the Education Development Institute of The Russian Academy of Education,” Moscow, Russia.


1 Scandinavian countries offer us a good example of people who manage to avoid excessive consumption and live in harmony with nature.

2 The best illustration of this idea was probably offered by Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff produced by Free Range Studios.



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