Elgan: Are gadgets bad for kids?

It's time to rethink the wisdom of digitizing youth

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I predicted back in March that Apple's iPad would become "the children's toy of the year." In that column, I pointed out why kids, parents and the "children's culture industry" would all love the iPad.

For their coverage of the 2010 holiday season, major news media are now reporting on the iPad-for-kids phenomenon, and several picked up my column, including USA Today. A lot of that coverage centers around whether gadgets in general, and iPads in particular, are good or bad for parents to give to children as gifts.

My column merely predicted that the iPad would be massively popular. I took no position on the wisdom of giving gadgets to kids. So I'll do that here: It's generally a bad idea.

The case for keeping kids away from gadgets

We make a great number of distinctions between activities that are appropriate for children and those that are not.

PG-13 ratings for movies and E ratings for video games tell parents that content has been approved for kids. Stores can't legally sell cigarettes and porn to children. You have to be 21 years old to enter a bar. YouTube makes you "sign in" before viewing racy videos.

The purpose of such bans and restrictions is to protect children from harm.

Do computers and gadgets harm kids? If so, shouldn't they be banned too -- if not by law, then at least by parental decree?

I think gadgets do cause harm, in the following ways:

Addiction. Computers and gadgets are addictive. Games, texting and frivolous online videos are especially so. It's also likely that the earlier kids start, the stronger their lifelong addiction.

Distraction. Smartphones, PCs, iPads and other devices are always there, offering a universe of entertainment. This makes it difficult for kids to focus on other things. Homework, for example. Chores. Dinnertime conversations. Distraction mode quickly becomes a habit so strongly ingrained that some kids simply cannot break it.

Shortened attention spans. It used to be that kids didn't have the patience to watch long YouTube videos. Now they don't even have the patience to watch short ones. When they bring up a video of some horrible skateboard accident, for example, if the face-plant doesn't happen in the first three seconds, they quickly swipe to fast-forward. The moment the injury has occurred, they're off to the next video. Attention spans have been shortening steadily for many years, but in the past few they seem to have gone off a cliff thanks to electronic media.

Reduced reading. Kids are reading a lot less now than they used to, primarily because of all the distracting video games, electronic diversions and computerized entertainment.

Nature deficit disorder. All too often, the use of gadgets replaces time spent outdoors. This impulse is supported by parental overprotection that feels comforted with the knowledge that Junior is safely ensconced in the den playing Xbox instead of running around outside where he might be abducted by a Mexican drug cartel. The result is often "nature deficit disorder," where kids become alienated from the natural world and suffer depression and anxiety from a lack of exposure to plants, dirt and the open sky.

Lack of exercise and sunshine. Kids are also growing weak. Some 70% of Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiency, which weakens both muscle and bone and contributes to diabetes and obesity. A lack of exercise does the same thing. As a result of these deficiencies, combined with too much junk food, this generation of children may become the first in history to actually die before their parents, according to a U.K. government health warning.

Disrupted sleep. Gadgets contribute to a reduction in both the quantity and quality of sleep. Video games and computers provide something entertaining to do late at night. Looking intently at bright screens before going to bed disrupts the quality of sleep. Kids routinely text and call each other at random times throughout the night. Bad sleep contributes to poor grades, behavior problems and a wide variety of health issues.

Damaged eyesight. Looking at screens is bad for eyes, especially for developing ones. Every new device that comes along increases the number of hours children spend every day looking at screens and decreases the time spent looking at objects of varying distance, which is necessary for good eyesight.

Radiation. The jury is still out on whether cell phones cause cancer. But if they do, there will be an epidemic. Children are getting cell phones now before the age of 10, and those phones are irradiating them all day and all night, all their lives.

Why do parents allow it?

Years ago, when PCs were new and cell phones were enormous, expensive and rare, parents worried about "computer literacy" for their children. Buying a PC and getting your kid to use it was a way to "prepare them for the future," to make sure that they wouldn't be "left behind."

But those days -- and those computers -- are gone for good. If the iPad has taught us anything, it's that the computers of today and tomorrow are so easy to use that no preparation is required.

In fact, exposure to technology is inescapable. Even if you never allowed your child to use gadgets in the home, they would be surrounded by these devices at school, at friends' houses and elsewhere.

There's simply no way today's children can grow up "computer illiterate." Kids will be able to use computers. The question is: Will they be able to stop?

More to the point: If you look at my list of ways that gadgets harm kids, you'll see that all these things harm the cause of preparing kids for the future. Computers and gadgets now put kids at a disadvantage for the future.

The child who can function in the real world with good health, a long attention span, the ability to concentrate and read long books, to socialize comfortably face-to-face -- these are the kids who have the greatest advantage for succeeding in the future.

A girl who grows up with the attention span to read science fiction will become a better writer than one who spends all her free time using an iPad. The boy who spends hours playing with Legos will become a better engineer than the one who uses the most advanced PC to surf the Internet. The kid who plays sports will become a better soldier than the one who excels at Call of Duty Black Ops.

Gadgets don't provide useful skills anymore. They mostly cultivate impulses, addictions, compulsions and lazy habits. They displace healthy activities. They teach kids to become consumers, not doctors, teachers and leaders.

I also believe that most parents intuit this but acquiesce because they think everybody else is doing it, because it's easier than arguing with kids about it, and because, like everyone else, they carry obsolete notions about the importance of computer literacy.

I may be exaggerating my case. At least I hope so. And I'm certain that a great many children will grow up surrounded by computers and gadgets and become happy, healthy, productive and independent adults. In general, however, I think our assumption that children benefit from exposure to consumer electronics is false.

Besides, kids will spend their entire adult lives surrounded by automation, digitized everything and computers everywhere. Give them at least a dozen years to discover the real world before jacking them into the Matrix.

I love consumer electronics -- and you'd never take mine away. But for young children, I believe gadgets do more harm than good.

Forget the iPad. If you want to prepare your kids for the future, get them bicycles.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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