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Erin Anderssen

Are gadgets ruining our kids' brains? Add to ...

There are good reasons why I should not buy my nine-year-old an iPod Touch this Christmas: the cost, the high chance of it being dropped/squashed/forgotten. Much as Apple would love to sell me that educational app on iTunes, my son’s not going to use it to boost his multiplication tables. He wants to fling “angry birds” into towers of blocks, download the latest Sean Kingston song, and play pranks with the completely useless app that pretends to break the screen when you poke it. His brain, some scientists say, would be better off with a board game. But Santa, I hear, is leaning in my son’s favour.

The gadget wish-list gets more expensive and skews younger every year; in a recent survey, the iPad topped the list of electronics most desired by kids between the ages of 6 and 12. So the struggle that parents have over technology, and how much is too much, merits a pre-Christmas reflection.

Andrew Butterworth, who owns an industrial parts company outside Toronto, learned about one pitfall when his five-year-old son inadvertently racked up a $140 charge buying Smurf berries in Smurf Village on Dad’s iPod Touch “with a couple clicks of his finger.” Mr. Butterworth is now more careful to turn off the Internet connection, but he’s not taking away the gadget. “Our whole future is all about technology,” he says firmly. “The kids who can navigate it best will be the most successful adults.”

Sandra Gerber, owner of Next Marketing in Vancouver, allows her eight-year-old son to use tech gadgets but sets firm limits. When Jack, bought an iPod touch with his own money this year, she banned an app in which bears run around cutting each other’s heads off, and she scrutinizes his Facebook page. “I love it when I see them get bored and turn the computer off,” she sighs. “But it’s part of life for them.”

There’s no putting the iPad back in the (nicely gift-wrapped) box, though you might wonder how navigating a touch screen in 2010 at the age of five will help that same kid, at the age of 25, with some yet-to-be-invented technology.

Google the search query “Should I buy my son an iPod Touch?” and – in addition to turning up a lively yahoo.ca chat about spoiled kids – you might find the study from Duke University that looked at home computer use among a half-million kids from Grade 5 to Grade 8, and found that math scores actually fell with Internet access (a finding, incidentally, that pre-dated Facebook or Twitter.) And from there, it’s just a click or two to Neil Postman, that tech-hating grump of yesteryear, warning that kids staring at screens are dumbing down their brains with too much amusement.

It’s been 25 years since Mr. Postman, the American educator and author, wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, his seminal criticism of technology, which raised the spectre of a society that exists only to entertain its unwitting citizens with vapid, little bits of life. It came out in 1985, when Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was barely old enough to be parked in front of Sesame Street, and the commercial cellphone, then celebrating its second anniversary, was the size of a handbag (and certainly unable to turn its screen into a light-sabre with the very useful Star Wars: The Force Unleashed app.)

Mr. Postman’s target was television. But it’s safe to assume he’d have nothing good to say about a land in which teenagers send, on average, 3,000 texts a month, and parents make YouTube videos of their two-year-old meeting the iPad like a first play date. After all, with a nod to Aldous Huxley, he was fretting about humans as Great Abbreviators when the world was still tweet-free. And while he later turned his scorn on the Internet, the device he initially believed would ruin kids forever – or at least make them stupid – couldn’t be carried around in their pockets. In a prescient description, offered during a speech in 1998, he compared technology to a red drop of dye spreading through a beaker of clear water. It’s more ecological than addictive. Parents, after all, aren’t buying iPads because they’re junkies; they buy them because, as Mr. Butterworth says, they believe their kids need them to thrive in the environment.

Mr. Postman would have us examine that belief – he worried about technology sneaking in without a proper debate about its role and impact, especially on children.

“The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder,” he told the Denver audience in his 1998 speech, “and that it’s capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Mobile media, for one thing, create another path to a world branded and owned by corporations, points out Daniel Thomas Cook, a sociologist at Duke University, and the author of The Commodification of Childhood. For instance, nine-year-old Richard Profit in Yellowknife describes using his iPad for homework (of course) but also to peruse YouTube for movie trailers. Sometimes, he says, his game apps prompt him to post his results on Facebook. “I think it’s pretty cool that my friends can see my score,” he says. (And Apple thinks it’s pretty cool that his friends might also want to buy the same game.) The problem for parents, Mr. Cook points out, is that early immersion in technology is hard to control. “How do you think outside the iPad, once you have it?”

The line between child-friendly and adults-only was already blurred by television, but it’s gone completely out of focus with smart phones and the rise of the “pass-back.” This term, used by researchers studying how to make educational apps that children actually want to play, refers to the act of handing a grown-up’s device to a kid in a restaurant or car, usually for a few minutes of peace and quiet. Following through on Mr. Postman’s apocalyptic vision, it’s that kind of carelessness that might eventually get you a 34-year-old son living in the basement.

Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, is more gentle: “It’s not like it’s toxic,” he says. It’s more like little kids could be doing better things, and at a certain point, with too much technology too soon, they might lose the ability to choose – spending an important window of development staring at a screen. And the brains of kids under 13 just aren’t ready for the social complications of Facebook, Dr. Rich warns. “We’re denying them a childhood,” he says, echoing Mr. Postman. “How many kids are going to remember that great angry bird game? But if they climb a tree with their friend, they’ll remember that. That’s what we’re trading off.”

Mr. Postman warned that culture would always pay a price for technology. He believed that a computer-saturated world would elevate information over wisdom, or as his former student Paul Levinson, the author of last year’s New New Media, explained this week, transform childhood into “one big game show,” creating minds distracted by bells and whistles and unable to master complex thought. And while he thinks that’s a worthy debate, Dr. Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University in New York, doesn’t agree with his old teacher, pointing out, for example, how kids devoured the Harry Potter books. “Human beings are inherently rational,” he says. “We can separate truth from falsity. We understand the difference between illusions and reality, between games and fun, and more serious things. And this is true of little kids.” He argues it’s a good thing that youth today have access to more information than any other generation before them, and if they don’t spend their iPad time catching up on world news, well, it’s not like they avidly read newspapers before.

But maybe it’s a case of too much information now streaming in fragments from too many directions, suggests Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Today’s technology is “consuming your attention without actually allowing you to pay attention,” he says. “If you are a teenager, you want to be in that steam of messages.”

Unplugging has become an endurance test: This week, students at a school in Washington State gave up social networking and cellphones for seven days – an experiment now so bold it attracted national media attention. “The kids are holding up better than we thought,” said teacher Trent Mitchell on day three. Though not without side effects: “One of my students says that he’s not carrying his cellphone this week and he keeps thinking that it’s ringing or vibrating and there’s no cellphone there – like phantom text messages.”

And what’s all that technology doing to our kids brains? The experiment is ongoing, says Mr. Carr, but he counters the argument that multitasking exercises the mind, arguing – as Mr. Postman did – that our brains are being wired away from focus and creativity. And in the spirit of Mr. Postman, he writes in his book that our screen-flitting habits make us see “only twigs and leaves,” not the forest.

That’s also Dr. Rich’s worry – that the best way to build a young brain is by face-to-face interactions, physical manipulation and complex problem-solving – things not best provided in an iPad app. Starting from birth, Dr. Rich says, “the things you use will be reinforced and strengthened and the things you don’t use will drop away.” The brain is shaped by experience – neuroplasticity – which means that if you don’t use it, you lose it. The problem is that other research has made an equally compelling case that using technology fires up the brain in positive ways, that even video games may improve certain cognitive facilities, such as visual motor skills and attention. (The skills you’d need, say, to be surgeon.) As a group, neuroscientists and child development experts such as Dr. Rich don’t agree, at least not yet.

Which makes this new generation the experiment, and leaves parents worrying that, as Mr. Postman said, their lives are being fitted (and their brains mapped) to suit technology, rather than the other way around. Either way, you’ll probably be slipping at least one gadget under the tree this year. Don’t beat yourself up. There’s always the chance that the Angry Birds app might turn your nine-year-old into a neurosurgeon.

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail

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