They’re flashy, they’re attention-grabbing, and they’ll even read to your children. They’re kid-friendly electronics, from “laptops” for toddlers to exergames to the e-books on your iPad. But are they good for your kids?
Recently, Olivia unwittingly conducted an experiment involving her two-year-old son Finn. “I decided to get rid of some toys, so I went through all of his stuff,” she says. “I put aside a bin, and filled it with the toys he doesn’t play with.” To Olivia’s surprise, these all turned out to be Finn’s electronic toys, including a “laptop” for children that plays music and displays animation on its screen and a letters-and-numbers learning toy that makes happy sound effects when you get something right (and disappointed, uh-oh sounds when you don’t). Even more surprising to Olivia was the fact that once these toys were out in the open, he still paid them absolutely no mind. Instead, he rediscovered some other things that had been out of sight such as a truck and some stacking blocks.
Olivia can take from this accidental experiment an important lesson. Experts—and a lot of parents—believe that many toys that are considered “old-fashioned” are actually better for children’s development than flashier electronic ones. In a 2007 Science Daily article, psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says that, “Old-fashioned retro toys, such as red rubber balls, simple building blocks, clay and crayons… are usually much healthier for children than the electronic educational toys that have fancier boxes and cost $89.99.” Electronic toys may be more expensive than the classic rubber ball or wooden stacking cups, but mom and dad want to make sure that their child has ostensibly the best toys and keeps up with the latest in technology so that they don’t fall behind their peers. But Hirsh-Pasek explains that the “overarching principle is that children are creative problem-solvers; they’re discoverers; they’re active. Electronic toys tend to dictate the action, whereas your child can take charge (and exercise his or her imagination) when the toy in question is more of a blank slate”.
EXERCISING AN ACTIVE IMAGINATION
Since the Science Daily article was published, electronic toys have gotten fancier. These days parents and researchers alike are more adamant that they’re simply not as beneficial as their non-electronic counterparts (or plain old one-on-one time with a parent). This summer, Wired’s Jenny Williams began an experiment in which she drastically limited (or eliminated when possible) her children’s access to electronics. Last month, she wrote, that the experiment has been an “unqualified success”. Her kids complained less about being bored, read more, played outside, and played with their toys much more.Williams theorized that when kids play with electronics, they “get immediate feedback, immediate gratification. When you read books, play with toys, or go outside and use your imagination, you have to do a bit more work. You’re actively using your brain instead of passively using it.”
And just last week, columnist and TV personality Bill O’Reilly wrote about taking a family vacation with seven children without their electronics. “Many American kids don’t want to go outside, unless there is someone handing out money,” he complained. “Many modern children stay indoors so they can feed their machine addictions.” And indeed, a tourist attraction “ghost walk” went well, O’Reilly’s kids had to use their imaginations to picture the stories being told without high tech visuals.
Actress, author, and mother of two Mayim Bialik recently wrote a book about attachment parenting, Beyond the Sling. In it, she talks about how her household is free of toys with batteries. “If we receive them as gifts, we either donate them or we let the batteries run out and do not replace them.”
Not only does Bialik eschew electronic toys, she cautions against letting too much “stuff” take the place of actual parenting. “It is our hope that stuff exists that can give us a break,” she says. “And with the best of intentions, we seek out stuff. We of course plan to give [our children] undivided attention when they are playing with their stuff, but we all know that we get exhilarated at the thought of having our hands free to check email, cook, or do things that we want to do that do not involve playing with or entertaining a baby.”
“Simple” toys, like the ones Bialik does allow in her house (wooden stacking bowls, a wooden teething ring, and a few simple fabric books, puppets, and dolls” promote versatile, imaginative play. Bialik does mention that her “older son really feels a strong need for a lot of Lego®s as well as enough fire engines for a ‘five alarm fire.’” But again, the child is in charge of what these toys become, whether they’re creating houses for their dolls or putting out fires with trucks.
THE INSTANT BABYSITTER
Why the dependence on electronics? Instant gratification, instant babysitter, instant peace and quiet, instant ability for the adult in question to dash off an email or put dinner on.
Last year, New York Times tech blogger David Pogue wrote that he had become concerned about his six-year-old’s possible addiction to the iPad. Pogue wrote that his son asked for the device “constantly” and became “bizarrely upset” when the iPad was taken away from him. But still, he was allowed to use it. “Let’s face it,” wrote Pogue,“when he’s on the iPad, he’s happy. He’s quiet. He’s engaged.” He took it further: “The iPad is a magic electronic babysitter that creates instant peace in the household.”
It’s a babysitter that will now read to your children. New kids’ e-books supposedly enhance the reading experience with a number of bells and whistles (illustrations become animated, sound effects are added). Parents can pass an e-book to their kids and feel that a learning experience is taking place without an actual parent in charge.
But researchers at Temple University’s Infant Laboratory in Philadelphia and Erikson Institute in Chicago conducted a “first-of-its-kind study” and found that an e-book reading experience is not on par with a parent and child snuggling up together with a good book. “Parents and pre-school children have a more positive interaction when sharing a reading experience with a traditional book as opposed to an electronic book, or e-book,” reported the study via a Temple University news release. “This shared positive experience from traditional books characteristically promotes early literacy skills.”
Even a parent who generally feels positively about e-books expressed concern, “There’s this struggle there,” Cristy Ludrosky told the New York Times in an article entitled “Bringing Up an E-Reader”. “Sometimes you look at it and you are thinking, ‘Are they reading or learning to read, or are they playing an app or a game?’”
SCREEN TIME VS. ONE-ON-ONE TIME
Video games have long since been a subject of debate when it comes to children. For a long time, many believed that violent video games caused aggression in children. However, studies didn’t initially back that theory up. But last summer, CBS News reported on a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology which revealed that violent video games “desensitized players to violent imagery.” “And of course, we want our children show empathy and compassion when exposed to violence, not apathy. In addition, CBS reported that “The American Psychological Association points to several studies linking video game violence to fighting at school and even to violent criminal behavior, such as assault or robbery.”
But what about non-violent video games like Lego® Harry Potter or even “exergames” like Wii Sports, which supposedly promote physical activity? The former is the cause of concern for parents who worry that their children spend an unhealthy amount of time in front of a video screen instead of engaging in more creative play or focusing on necessities like school-work or reading (also a hazard for older kids who spend a lot of time texting). And parents who have invested in the latter will be disappointed to learn that “active” games don’t actually result in significantly increased exercise. Last month, the New York Times reported that “exergames turn out to be much digital ado about nothing, at least as far as measurable health benefits for children.” The author, Randall Stross—also a parent—lamented that, “‘Active’ video games distributed to homes with children do not produce the increase in physical activity that naïve parents (like me) expected. That’s according to a study undertaken by the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and published early this year in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
Not surprisingly for critics of video games—even non-violent ones—the article concluded that when it comes to healthy physical activity, kids need “real balls, real rackets and real courts.” And they need parental involvement in these activities as well. When it comes to playtime, parents can’t realistically expect to hunker down over their email and have their kids remain content playing by themselves; children will want to involve themselves with their own electronic pursuits. One-on-one activities like reading to children, playing a game of catch or creating a finger-paint masterpiece, are immeasurable experiences in healthy play, imagination-building, and bonding between parent and child. And no iPad can accomplish that.