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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.)

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