It's not that the symptoms of restlessness aren't real. It's that children have become more turbulent as the walls of expectation have closed in on them – and far before smartphones came along.
It is the year 1973 and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal has just orchestrated an oil embargo against the West for its role in Israel’s Yom Kippur war with the Arabs. This sent the price of the essential commodity rocketing, paving the way for an era of abundance and Gulf-American rapprochement.
Amid the greener pastures cultivated by the proud baby boomers (born between 1944 and the early 1960s) who, especially in the Arab world, had defied the odds to get to where they were in their newly formed, Western-emulating states, a new, relatively privileged and restless generation came along not one, but two generations down. I say two because the first generation after the baby boomers (known as Generation X), born right before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Iranian revolution of 1979, still would not have dared deviate from their parents’ educational agenda, at least not in the Arab world.
In contrast, my generation (Generation Y), born roughly between 1980 and the mid-1990s, was fortunate enough to reap the fruit of this abundance (especially in the Gulf and the ‘Western’ West), while also having the luxury of playing on the streets with dolls, balls and bicycles (which, chances are, their parents could afford) and writing their homework exclusively on paper in their formative and teenage years.
But as good as we Millennials had it, the type of expectation we were subject to extended far beyond the utilitarian. We weren’t just told to do well to survive and get food on the table like the generation(s) before us, but to match the greatness of our parents’ picket fences and hard-earned degrees by, well, being great.
Unfortunately for us, the perils of expectation were compounded by rather lax parenting. After all, what world class doctor, engineer or business executive would want to inflict the same type of terror or contempt they were subject to on their “special” children?
The result was that we had the added struggle of being less disciplined, on the one hand, and facing the pressure of ascending to greatness, on the other.
It is no wonder, then, that such mountains of expectation made children increasingly unsettled.
Of course, continents and regions undergoing sociopolitical transitions and strife long after the end of World War Two, from Africa to Latin America and from Eastern Europe to subcontinental Asia, would take issue with the above trajectory, which is specific to first-world countries and third-world communities that have had the American dream land on their doorsteps.
Yet behavioural turbulence has since accelerated for both the less fortunate and the more affluent.
The budding Centennials of Generation Z, also infamously referred to as iGen, which the American Psychological Association says starts at 1997, are now unanimously bearing the brunt of what has resulted from our era of prosperity: population boom, accelerated global warming, austerity, smartphones and the rampant spread of China's lower-quality goods across the world.
So while Millennials born in untroubled hemispheres had to deal exclusively with the byproducts of abundance in their formative years, Centennials and the new “Generation Alpha” (born 2013 onwards) are gripped by the longer tentacles of globalised consumerism no matter where they are.
What's more, while children in more removed, rural communities have always had the luxury of playing for hours in the street, zoning out and using their imagination in the most primordial of ways, whether to concoct stories inside their tree houses or to simply run around and play hide-and-seek, smartphones have since made their way into virtually every alleyway.
So for even those who didn’t necessarily have expectations of greatness inflicted on them, even as they typically grappled with immediate, protracted crises such as war and poverty, their descendants now grapple to survive, all the while being bombarded by images and messages from regions whose reality bears no semblance to their own.
And yet, whatever the sociopolitical reality, the temptation to keep children quiet with gadgets has become irresistible to most overburdened parents, meaning the alphas, who, unlike their Millennial and early Centennial counterparts, are born at a time of soaring pollution levels, cut-throat competition, inflation and recession, also have to bear the brunt of heightened turbulence thanks to the invasiveness of the likes of Snapchat and Instagram and the gadgets that display them. In other words, not only are they not born into a “special” era like their Millennial counterparts, they also have to survive the frenzy of a far greater number of variables.
A video production dubbed "we are the laziest kids in history; let us play" recently went viral in the Arab world. The video shows Arab children regurgitating narratives of contempt for "being naughty" and underperforming at school and ends with them playing outside, saying "if you would let us play more and dirty our clothes, we may be able to conquer the speech, obesity and depression epidemics and gain confidence we won't get from watching TV".
For the most part, though, only a handful of often geographically far-removed regions are successfully fighting back against these forces, Scandinavia being the obvious case. Finland, for instance, has reduced school hours to ensure children have enough time for idle self-discovery and development, making its educational system, which emphasises all-rounded wellness and lateral thinking over rigorous routine, the best in the world. The very basic, organic tenets that they champion are increasingly dawning on people. Basking in mud, drawing for hours and being exposed to colour and shapes preps the brain for insight - and calms the mind - the way no book can. Who would have thought the primordial would become such a luxury?
The head of a rehabilitative movement school in North Carolina once told me he does not allow his children to enter the house after school until they have run wild outside for at least three hours.
And yet, with children being told to spend hours in their seats wading through piles of subjects (and then facing the anger and anxiety of their parents at home), is it any wonder that diagnoses and prescriptions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are on the rise - and spill over into adulthood in full force as they incrementally have the past 40 odd years? I have specifically refrained from entertaining the ADHD label until now because manifestations of turbulence aren't so much innate (though, of course, the more creative, intuitive types are certainly more easily distracted than the more observant), but are exacerbated by environment and lack of effective parenting. As such, the prescriptions are a response to the symptoms and not a root remedy to what has set them off.
The real remedy begins with stark, declarative acknowledgements: we have effectively ordered children to be counterintuitive. We have stifled them and ensured they exhibit symptoms of restlessness. What's more, we all know that the vast majority of us children-turned-adults are somewhat doomed to their screens and the flawed narratives we inherited from our parents (apparently, women who try and keep up with expectation when pregnant pass the restless energy onto the humans growing inside of them, too).
As such, at this rate, we can only aspire for damage control. That starts with the acute awareness that restlessness and turbulence are symptoms of a harsh world order and that we must remove ourselves from scenes of stimulation, be it through switching off the TV, finding ourselves a mentor (a dire necessity) or simply sitting at a park in silence, as often as we humanly can.