A 4-year-old boy informed his preschool teacher—a friend of mine—that he’d broken his iPad.
“Oh,” my friend said. “What a shame. Did you drop it?”
“No,” the boy said. “I got mad that my mom wanted me to share it with my sister, so I slammed it on the table and it broke. Now we have two of them, so I don’t have to share.
When my friend conveyed this to me, using the anecdote as an example of the devolution of parenting since she began teaching, the first thing that came to mind was a gift I received in the mid-1980s from a complete stranger. I had written a column in which I speculated that video games were addictive and shortened a child’s attention span. A few weeks later, UPS delivered a state-of-the-art Nintendo accompanied by a lengthy letter from the president of Nintendo Corporation. It took him nine pages to tell me that I was dead wrong, that video games stimulated all manner of intellectual and social skills. They were, he insisted, a veritable fount of marvelous benefits.
Thirty years later, studies have found that video games are addictive, shorten attention span, and are associated with poor school performance. In addition, a significant number of parents have told me stories about game-obsessed kids who are moody, explosive, withdrawn, and have trouble sleeping. Research done by educational psychologists, such as Jane Healy, Ph.D., author “Endangered Minds,” finds that electronic, screen-based devices interfere with normal brain development.
To many parents, however, the facts don’t seem to matter. What matters is that their kids don't feel different, that they have what their friends have. I am reminded of a mother who asked me what I thought about giving iPads and the like to toddlers. She herself had a two-year-old. I told her, in a nutshell, what the data reveals. She then said, “Oh, but my daughter likes hers so much! I just can’t see taking it away from her.”
A year later, the child constantly demanded attention. She could not be left with a babysitter, so her parents took her everywhere they went and alternated entertaining her. She had become, their friends agreed, a handful.
Electronic devices do not help young children learn to entertain themselves. A child who entertains herself is independent. She learns how to problem-solve. Developmental psychologist Burton White claimed that the ability to play independently and creatively on a regular basis, for more than an hour at a time and without adult attention, was the best marker of developmental health in a 3-year-old.
Electronic devices can induce dependency, and as in the case with the little girl, when a child becomes dependent and then cannot access electronics for a period, she transfers the burden to entertain her to the nearest adults. She becomes a difficult and demanding child.
These games do children no favors. That, I am convinced, is unarguable. And while it is also unarguable that children like them, so what?