If Siri and Alexa replace Margaret and Judy, I fear for the inner world of the next generation

After 40 years, I met my childhood hero. Not a sporting god or an ageing popstar. Judy Blume, the beloved children’s author, at this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival.

Blume’s 1970s classics Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie and Blubber tackled
the big taboos. Her books were our loyal friends. Kept our secrets and nourished our fledgling inner lives.

Author Judy Blume wrote with love and became a hero to her readers.Credit:Joseph Maida / Telegraph Media Group 

Still I am uneasy. As a primary school teacher and mum, what of today’s children’s inner
lives? And their books?

Children are reading less and less. For them, “electronics have changed everything [about] the how of communication,” says Blume. “But not what they’re feeling.”

Screens lure Australian children for up to seven hours a day. Screen time may involve reading and positive social interactions but games can be addictive and online bullying a problem too.

Blissfully solitary, reading books connects us in spirit. It unites generations and cultivates children’s
identity, their interior voice. It’s not happening enough.

Ironically, I turned to Facebook, and asked my friends and local community: “What was
your favourite book or author growing up?”

A torrent of nostalgia and love was returned. Books fired our imaginations. Enchanted and nurtured. Characters filled our hearts. They were good company.

Will this generation feel the same? Could something else fill the vacuum of long-held literary favourites?

Surely “intelligent digital beings” like Siri, Alexa or Google Home could never replace children’s
imaginary social companions?

Psychology Professor Sandra Calvert from Georgetown University thinks it’s possible. She writes in the Journal of Children and Media although young children may understand that “artificial beings” are not biologically alive, children’s “personification and treatment of them ‘as if’ they are alive, may be sufficient to make them valuable social partners, who can serve as trusted teachers and friends”. Robots?

Hidden bias can be built into the algorithms underlying computer code. Artificial intelligence
opens the prospect of commercial exploitation. Authors offer lived experience, accountability, continuity.

Digital imitations can’t connect children with what it means to be human nor cherish the
inner life of a child. And books smell good.

Blume’s books were written with love. The young readers of today are the writers of tomorrow.
“How can we encourage children to read?” I asked my childhood hero.

“Go to a bookstore with your child,” says Blume. “Sit on the floor. Turn the pages. Read the first page, a middle page, or don’t, but help your child find a voice they can connect with.”

You can do that at the library or with a teacher. Me, I will be heading to the attic to dust off a few favourites. My daughter is 10 now. I think she will enjoy meeting Margaret.

Annie Flynn is a former lawyer, a primary school teacher and mother of three.

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