Are We Losing Fine Motor Skills With Modern Tech?

Are We Losing Fine Motor Skills With Modern Tech?

Are We Losing Fine Motor Skills With Modern Tech?

Who has a smartphone? Pretty much everyone does these days. You can still get a flip phone with actual buttons, but they are getting more scarce all the time. Now, how about iPads? Kindles? Microsoft Surface? Anything with a touchscreen? If you don’t own one, you at least see it all the time. And the next generation may be losing their fine motor skills because of this technology.

Who says so? Professor Roger Kneebone, of Imperial College, London, says we have a problem with incoming surgery students.

A professor of surgery says students have spent so much time in front of screens and so little time using their hands that they have lost the dexterity for stitching or sewing up patients.

Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical.

“It is important and an increasingly urgent issue,” says Prof Kneebone, who warns medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew.

“It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things – cutting things out, making things – that is no longer the case,” says Prof Kneebone.

The professor, who teaches surgery to medical students, says young people need to have a more rounded education, including creative and artistic subjects, where they learn to use their hands.

Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade – which he says is a problem for surgeons, who need craftsmanship as well as academic knowledge.

“An obvious example is of a surgeon needing some dexterity and skill in sewing or stitching,” he says.

“A lot of things are reduced to swiping on a two-dimensional flat screen,” he says, which he argues takes away the experience of handling materials and developing physical skills.

Such skills might once have been gained at school or at home, whether in cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument.

Students have become “less competent and less confident” in using their hands, he says.

“We have students who have very high exam grades but lack tactile general knowledge,” says the professor.

Now, who among you has had surgery? Or who has even needed stitches for yourself or a child? I had my gallbladder out in 2012. You bet there were stitches involved (internally, if not externally – I was fortunate enough to able to have laparoscopic surgery and my external incisions were small enough to be glued shut).

One of my favorite YouTube channels is “Vet Ranch,” where a group of veterinarians located in Texas perform surgeries or give other medical care to animals in the effort to make them adoptable. You bet there is a lot of stitching involved in vet work. (Vet Ranch offers both censored videos, and uncensored videos for those who can handle more graphic surgery footage.)

So, what happens when all the kids who want to be veterinarians someday can’t handle a needle and thread? Not to mention those kids who have all the book smarts and the STEM grades to become a doctor, and are confounded the first time they are told to close up a wound?

Fine motor skills are critical for so many things. As a special needs mom, I was made aware very early on when my oldest son was diagnosed with autism that his fine motor skills were critical to his continued development. At the time, he could barely hold a pencil with enough force to press down firmly and write his own name. Over time, he developed that skill. He now takes art classes, and one of his particular talents has been in sculpting.

Clay sculpture of Pixar character Mike Wazowski (personal photo of author)

My youngest son, who also is on the autism spectrum, has the same fine motor difficulties as his brother. We have him writing his name and drawing shapes with markers at school and in therapy, because he doesn’t press hard enough for a pencil line to be seen. Someday, we’ll get there. But my boys, as much as any other modern kid, know how to manipulate touchscreens.

In school, we have gone so far over to focusing on STEM subjects and making sure that kids don’t fall behind in math and science, that we long ago gave up requiring home economics or wood shop. Some of these classes are still offered by elective, but how many high school kids can actually sew a button back on their own clothes these days? And how many of their parents can actually do it?

Crafts have a therapeutic effect as well as promoting fine motor skills (look at the explosion in intricate adult coloring books). These skills need to be brought back into our schools, into our hobbies, and into our homes. Otherwise, I see a future where medical students are going to be required to take a sewing class to improve their fine motor skills before they get within ten feet of a living patient who needs stitches. Now there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone out there!

Featured image via Pixabay

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4 Comments
  • a bee ee? says:

    This really hits home. My son has autism and my nephew (his cousin) is a surgeon.

  • Jim says:

    I and my brother are both autistic, but when we were born nearly 70 years ago no one knew about children like us. However in post-war Australia under the discipline of a old fashioned industrious parents – father was raised on a farm – we were expected to perform all sorts of skills and tasks indoors and out under supervision. Father, being ex-army, sewed, modified and ironed his own clothes as required. we were expected to do the same. At school writing skills were drilled so, to this day, much younger people seeing me write are fascinated by my flowing penmanship. Playing a musical instrument was compulsory from grade 6 onwards. I have always been somewhat clumsy and have extremely high muscle tone and strength unlike some others autistics, but I still managed to develop my skills in classical music [clarinet] to the level I could perform for exams and concerts at a high level. As a physical educator I must agree that children in general, but especially those who are developmentally different, are being limited by modern lifestyles and also over-protected: many are also conditioned to fear failure, thus never allowed take [reasonable] risks.

  • GWB says:

    Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade
    But I bet their thumbs are da bomb!

    So, what happens when all the kids who want to be veterinarians someday can’t handle a needle and thread?
    Pfft. One of them will have invented a dermal knitter by then, and we’ll no longer need stitches.
    Because we now have autonomous flying cars, right? It IS the 21st century, after all.

    And how many of their parents can actually do it?
    I might not be the greatest craftsman, but I do woodworking, plumbing, electrical work, car maintenance and repair, and I sewed my own patches on in the military (when necessary) and buttons on my shirts. I also cook.
    And, all those things have been passed on to my son.

    Yes, we need to get the next generation into physical skills and hobbies, ones that involve the brain and the fingers and the eyes. And other good life skills, too.

  • I was just talking with two younger colleagues (we all have PhDs) who say they don’t remember things the way they used to because they don’t need to – they Google. This had me thinking; how many phone numbers do I know now compared to what I did in pre-cell phone days?

    In some ways it’s progress that we needn’t clutter our minds and lives with mundane tasks that can be automated, but what do we lose in brain development? Cursive is associated with brain development that printing isn’t, and Common Core almost eliminates printing instruction as well.

    IMO technology that makes us more effective at things should be embraced, but we should maintain the basic skills and knowledge it replaces.

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