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Tech Toys: Considerations

 Image Credit: Mike Licht

Image Credit: Mike Licht

I’ve always held a fairly positive view on what newer technologies can bring into the lives of young people. As a child, I read books, played video games, chatted online, drew pictures, and played outside; the video games didn’t make me murderous, I didn’t meet any pedophiles online; I even grew up to engage professionally with both new tech and old tech, particularly how they work together.

I’d like to consider the ways in which tech toys are or can be supportive of positive developmental goals, like critical thinking and independence. This isn’t me saying that they ARE inherently helpful or even inherently safe, but rather framing this as a question of how to make the best of them.

Changes in kids' attention spans

One of these I seem to hear often is the issue of whether technology toys decrease attention span, and relatedly whether it makes children’s behaviour worse.  There is a suggestion that if children are spending more play time in “shallow” rather than “deep” attention; I’m oversimplifying, but it seems the stimulation of a video game or of television—they have similar effects it seems—affect changes in attention that might be connected with diagnosed ADHD (Chan & Rabinowitz, 2006Swing et al., 2010).

But beyond a certain social reliance on diagnoses of behavioural problems, there’s no reason to immediately assume that changing attention habits or abilities are inherently problematic. There’s nothing wrong with “shallow” attention per se, it’s good for many things; I can’t speak for television, but the active, adaptive, search-and-respond nature of digital play has a boon of benefits for developing cognition. Young people’s brains, developing in a different media environment, are literally wired differently from those of their parents and grandparents, a significant cognitive shift characterised by "a craving for continuously varying stimuli, a low threshold for boredom, the ability to process multiple information streams simultaneously, and a quick intuitive grasp of algorithmic procedures that underlie and generate surface complexity” (Hayles, p. 114). This is already happening, and it’s not bad; it will be important though, to develop what can only be described as neutral traits into constructive abilities.

Are tech toys actually educational?

Another common claim is that technology toys are “educational”—a slippery term if there ever was one. For me this brings to mind everything from LeapFrog toys to kids’ games hosted on corporate websites to interactive displays in science museums; this runs a huge range of type and quality, making it difficult to generalise. I think it’s clear that the assumption that tech toys are more educational than textbooks or field trips or playing outside is wrong; all of these things have the potential to be educational, and for a kid basically everything in life is educational to some degree.

There is a line between toys intended to be educational—like purpose-built educational software—and other technologies whose uses aren’t as clear—like iPads—that I find somewhat bewildering. Personally, the former bored me as a kid (I preferred books), while the latter, I think anyway, would have been a great opportunity to decide how it should be used. Laptops and smartphones and such, these are not just portals for video games and Youtube, remember, but also for creating art, photography, typing stories, playing with mathematical equations in a relatively free and unstructured way, which can be extremely valuable from an educational, and happiness, perspective.

Age Matters

I have heard it said that the effects of technology varies significantly depending on the age at which kids are exposed to it (Anderson & Pempek, 2005) The Waldorf-Steiner educational system, for example, has thus far kept new tech as something for use in upper schools only (age 12 and over), with a philosophy that children should learn primarily through human contact, with even books minimised as a form of media that can “get in the way” (Woods & Woods, 2009).

I largely agree with the idea that all technology—including books—serve as a form of abstraction and distancing from reality that is both useful and potentially alienating, with alienation almost invariably resulting from overuse. Perhaps one approach is to wait to introduce media devices that allow continuous access until children are mature enough to limit themselves. Perhaps that’s entirely pie-in-the-sky, considering I’m probably online more than I should be. Perhaps the best defense is a good offense: tech is there and to some degree necessary, but provide more and better activities that focus on human contact as much as possible. Keep the human as the more attractive, and more normal, option.

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