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A new era in play


Reed Karaim

USA Weekend

December 16, 2007

From birth, today's kids learn about the world in a completely different way than previous generations did. Experts discuss the advantages -- and what has been lost.

A child's world always has had odd dimensions, as narrow as the backyard or a corner of the kitchen, but as broad as the imagination. However, the world of today's kids has stretched to accommodate new realms: video games, virtual realities, online communities and a host of high-tech toys. Today's kids have talking baby books; they raise digital pets online before they can be trusted to feed the cat; they fight wars on distant planets before they're old enough to drive. Through text messaging, they're perpetually in touch; through the Internet, they can meet people halfway around the world.

From cellphones to "Halo 3," they take to all of it with an ease and eagerness that can leave parents baffled. In the brave new digital universe, "adults are immigrants," says Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, "and kids are natives."

But is this new world really a healthy one for children? How are video games, electronic toys and the rest of the chip-driven gizmos that fill modern life changing childhood? Those questions loom large enough that next month's International CES, the mammoth consumer electronics trade show held in Las Vegas, is including a conference -- The Sandbox Summit: A Playdate with Technology -- to examine the way kids learn and play in the new digital world.

"Clearly, we're in a digital age," says Claire Green, president of the Parents' Choice Foundation, one of the event's sponsors. "Kids are teething on remote controls. They're constantly exposed to digital media. So let's find out what makes sense. Let's find out what's age appropriate and what encourages learning, thinking, probing."

There's little doubt a technological revolution is sweeping through children's lives. The Entertainment Software Association reports that nearly a third of Americans who play computer and/or video games are under 18. The Pew Internet & American Life Proj-ect says 93% of teenagers are on the Internet. A study of the cellphone industry found that up to 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds now have their own phones, as well as a significant number of 5- to 9-year-olds.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, American kids ages 8 to 18 average 44.5 hours per week in front of some kind of screen. The only thing that they do more is sleep.

Concern about what this activity -- or, many would say, lack of activity -- is doing to children dates back to the dawn of television. But it has accelerated with the spread of PCs and Xboxes into millions of homes. Much of the concern has centered on content -- the violence and sexual nature of some video games.

But some critics have raised more fundamental concerns about how electronic media affect mental development in children. Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and the author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It," believes they're actually wiring kids' brains differently than in past generations.

Healy believes many of the most popular and exciting video games engage and build the basic "fight or flee" part of the brain rather than the centers of higher reasoning. Some games, she acknowledges, are more reflective, and she encourages parents to play along to determine whether a game requires intelligent reasoning. In many cases, children "look like they're solving problems on a video game, but they're really just responding on a sensory level," she says. "If you watch kids on a computer, most of them, they're just hitting keys or moving the mouse as fast as they can. It really reminds me of rats running in a maze."

The rapid-fire pace of most electronic media is different from the sustained thought necessary for in-depth reasoning, Healy says. She is convinced that pace can be tied to the dramatic increase in the diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder among today's children. Healy believes most children should be kept away from computer screens until at least age 7, until their brains have had more time to develop.

Gloria DeGaetano, an educator who founded the Parent Coaching Institute in Bellevue, Wash., to help parents cope with the challenges of raising children in today's culture, says parents need to be particularly wary of videos or electronic games promoted as effective preschool teaching tools.

"There's an important theory in early-child education called the 'theory of loose parts,' which means that children need to manipulate things in a three-dimensional environment to grow their brain," she says. "These video games and electronic toys are replacing the loose parts that kids need, and it's not the same."

A recent study found that videos such as the highly touted Baby Einstein and Baby Genius series actually slowed children's language development. Sharna Olfman, a professor of developmental psychology at Point Park University and editor of the Childhood in America book series, says, "There's really no reason why kids under 2 years of age should be sitting in front of any kind of screen."

Olfman points out that many popular video and electronic educational products for children come with commercial tie-ins. "I think the primary education kids are getting through these things is to be consumers," she says.

All these warnings may leave parents wanting to raise their children in a cave. But on the other side are those who believe the digital revolution offers as many opportunities for children as it does dangers.

Green, of the Parents' Choice Foundation, which provides information to parents who are looking for toys and media that could help children learn, believes the best video games and electronic toys can spur a child's imagination. As an example, she cites the Nancy Drew video games: "You have to think and really puzzle those things through."

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind TV's "Sesame Street," is planning an ambitious effort to spread its content across digital media platforms. The show's famous fuzzy characters have popped up on tiny screens from iPods to cellphones. "

We're the first ones to promote reading a book," Knell says. "But we also know there are lots of kids who are being exposed to iPods or video games or downloads on the Internet. It's there. It's not going away. So why not have content that's appropriate?"

Knell says Sesame Workshop and Sprint recently distributed nearly 100 video-capable phones in a poorer neighborhood and provided a download a day for kids. "More than 75% of the moms viewed this as a tool for their kids to improve their literacy," says Knell, who is scheduled to give the Sandbox Summit keynote address.

Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review and a believer in the benefits of mind-building software such as Nintendo's Brain Age and Sony's Practical Intelligence Quotient 2, says parents need to "set the stage for healthy use" of all electronic media.

That includes setting time limits -- he stresses that digital media should be only one part of a balanced life that includes exercise and reading -- and paying attention to the video rating system so your children play games appropriate to their ages. Healthy use, Buckleitner says, also includes sharing the activity with your kids: "Get two controllers, not just one. Or get four, and make it a social activity."

Lisa Guernsey, author of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five," began focusing her research on children and screen time after she had her own daughters. She found little evidence that small amounts of time, 30 minutes or less, in front of age-appropriate videos harms young children. "The reality is, the time you set them down in front of the screen is probably not time you were going to be reading to them anyway," she says.

For electronic toys and games, she says, the best are those that allow a child the freest range of expression. The worst are those that require a child to follow only narrow, preset patterns, which not only stifles creativity, but also is frustrating to kids.

Rather than viewing electronic media and toys as a yes-or-no proposition, Guernsey suggests keeping in mind "the three Cs: content, context and your child." Make judgments based on the material, the way you are using it and whether your child is ready for it.

Buckleitner echoes that thought. "There are experts like me," he says, "but there's only one person who knows your child, and that's you."


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