Brain-Based Learning

Young Kids and Technology at Home

January 4, 2013
Photo credit: paulm via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When I was a kid, the main reason my mom limited our television time was x-rays. Back in 1968, when I was seven years old, the same age my daughter is now, a big study on radioactive emissions from cathode ray tubes had just come out, and so our new color Philco had become the enemy. My brother and I had to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and the NY Jets win the Super Bowl from 15 feet away, in the corner of the room diagonally opposite from the set.

Today, we don't even have a single screen from which to protect our kids, or a threat as immediately visceral as cathode rays to neutralize. Interactive screens are everywhere. They invite an ever-expanding array of modes of participation, states of consciousness and exposure to manipulation. Worse, the era of big budget studies to measure media's effects is over; the only ones spending money to learn about the impact of this stuff are marketers, and they're not concerned with quite the same things that parents are.

Making matters even more complicated for concerned parents, our kids seem to know more than we do about the devices they use and virtual places they hang out. We feel like immigrants in a digital landscape where our kids are natives. Who are we to tell them how to behave, when to log-off and what not to do?

We're their parents, that’s who. And while we may not have spent as many hours watching iCarly, txting about Justin or raiding in Warcraft, we are still responsible for their physical, emotional, intellectual and neurological wellbeing, and still more than capable of becoming competent stewards of their highly digital life journeys.

Evolving Media, Evolving Roles

I have been studying and pondering the impact of digital media on people of all ages since the mid-'80s -- long before I had my own offspring to worry about. As these technologies emerged in the 1970s and '80s, I found myself inspired by them. They heralded a new relationship to the television screen, which had always been dominated by advertisers and the sorts of programs that reflected these advertisers' values. Interactive technologies, from video games to entertainment software, seemed informed by a completely new sensibility. In part, this was because these technologies cost money; they weren't sponsored by advertisers looking to sell something, but had to sink or swim on their own merits in the marketplace of entertainment.

Further, the mere introduction of interactive elements changed a young person's orientation to media: there were now choices to make. Instead of just following a character, a young person could be that character. Instead of entraining passivity, these new sorts of electronic entertainment encouraged different sorts of activity.

But as new media became more profitable, they also became big business. Companies competed to create the most addictive experiences and interfaces they could possibly make. And larger media corporations began using video games and web sites as mere extensions of their bigger brands and franchises. As the innocence of interactive media gave way to the experience of corporate media, whatever I had wanted to believe about interactive media itself became overshadowed by the greater media environment in which it was being created and distributed.

Accordingly, my views have slowly shifted from unbridled optimism to despairing pessimism to informed pro-action. These technologies may be here to stay, they should help us all in the long run, and we have no choice but accept their omnipresence in our kids' world. That said, we're in a position to actively influence the role these technologies have in their lives, create informed media users, and mitigate much of the potentially detrimental social and cognitive effects.

I freely admit that many of today’s conclusions will be disproved by tomorrow’s research. Even if you don't accept all of these guidelines as appropriate in your situation (you know more about your values, goals and kids than I do), I hope they will encourage you to think of yourself as the one capable of developing the domestic digital media policy for your home. Having no policy is still a policy.

Age-Appropriate Development

To begin with, all screens may be different, but they're still screens to young children. On a most rudimentary level, this means they either depict two-dimensional realities (like cell phone interfaces and sideways-shooter arcade games) or use their 2D displays to depict 3D realities, such as TV shows. No biggie -- except for babies and toddlers, whose ability to understand and contend with 3D worlds is still in development. They don't fully understand the rules of opaque objects (that's why peekaboo behind a napkin poses endless fascination), so high quantities of time spent sitting in front of 2D screens may actually inhibit some of their 3D spatial awareness. That's why so many pediatricians recommend that kids under the age of two probably shouldn't watch any TV at all.

Given that we live in a real world of two working parents, showers to be taken and dinners to be made, I'd say the compromise position is 20 minutes twice a day -- but permitting only DVDs designed for kids, with:

  • Good, long scenes they can try to make sense of with their little brains
  • Nature they couldn't see otherwise
  • Optical development exercises
  • Early vocabulary

And no, they can't sit next to Junior while he watches Lego Star Wars.

In my opinion, the same goes for interactive devices, like an iPad or Nintendo DS, up until children are seven or eight years old. There's so much else for them to learn about first. Like gravity. Human individuals tend to recapitulate the history of civilization as they grow up. Infants are like monkeys, babies like cavemen, toddlers like Biblical characters, and so on. We learn to grunt, speak, write, make videos and program computers in about the same order as our ancestors who developed these new media.

Little kids play with balls, seesaws and slides as they develop their vestibular senses, and come to learn about the wonders of gravity. They move on to Frisbees, bikes and Hula Hoops as they explore angular momentum and harmonic motion. The weightless world of a digital game or virtual environment fascinates us for the way it defies the rules of the real world; until we are firmly anchored in the former reality, however, these new principles are not neurologically compatible with a developing sensory system. Up and down, light and dark control a whole lot more in human biology than we might like to think. Best not to fool these feedback mechanisms before they have a chance to come online in a developing child.

A pinball machine may no less addictive than Moshi Monsters, but at least the context in which it invites its obsessions is that of the physical world -- a place kids must learn to navigate before they are equipped to venture into virtual ones.

In my next post, I'll cover some approaches for technology at home for older kids.

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