Back to School

It's that time again. The start of the school year brings excitement and anticipation--as well as anxiety, fear, and loathing.

Wearing Our Kids Out With iStuff

iStuff deprives our kids of "goof off time"

David Gerlernter wrote a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal titled: “Make It A Summer Without iStuff.” He writes that children's minds need both work and rest, but believes the iWorld fails to supply the child–mind with either of these basic needs.

For example, video games teach a child how to position tanks to beat the enemy even though the child doesn't know how to aim, shoot, command, obey, or put his or her boots on. So, unlike a military simulator, it teaches nothing. Without grounding in real world experience, it’s just a toy.

And fun? Gerlernter believes that the best sort of play unleashes the mind to wander and roam freely instead of being provided with endless servings of “colorful and seductive mental mush.”

It became evident to me and my colleagues, after many years in clinical practice, that leisure time or “goof off time” is important for children, especially in striving middle-class families where, as in Lake Wobegon, every child is “above average and headed to Harvard.”

Our clinical staff developed a chart with approximate family standards, including bedtimes, daily responsibilities, wages for work around the house, weekly allowances, nightly homework times and a minimum amount of time for leisure. We learned that children crave structure and we fully subscribed to the old adage that a train without tracks is not truly free because it can go nowhere.

But we saw some children who, to their detriment, had been placed on recreational, academic and achievement schedules that would tax the endurance of an adult. Some of these children were pressured to such an extent that they had virtually no relaxation or private nonproductive time.

I believe Gerlernter is correct. The child-mind needs rest as well as work. It seems obvious to me that most electronic gadgets are for entertainment purposes, although the iPad and other devices can help children learn spelling, word calling and other basic skills. But what about the fun part? Do electronic games satisfy the basic need for rest and play, as defined by Gerlernter?

I looked up leisure and play in Roget’s Thesaurus and found such terms as triviality, relaxing, pleasurable, amusing, dealing lightly with, a small amount, self-amusement, turning aside, a thing of unimportance, and the free choice to do what one wants.

How do electronic games stack up? Are they relaxing? For most kids, they seem to be, at least initially. Video games that teach a child how to position tanks to beat the enemy may teach little, as Gerlernter points out, but is that so bad?

Prior to the introduction of electronic games, children played with toy soldiers and it seemed to satisfy their need for play. They learned to position their troops to beat the enemy, but the hands-on approach may have improved their spatial and positioning skills as well, and sparked some creativity. And that was good, but when electronic games result in obsessive and addictive attachment and the child is exposed to seductive pressures to buy more Apps, relaxation may go by the boards.

What about free choice and the freedom to do what one wants? Again, there is initial exhilaration because the child has a “candy store” of choices. This can easily morph into rigid compliance, however, because the game-manufacturer’s programming is based on behavioral modification and learning theory. Talk about David and Goliath? Here we have a naïve, dependent, eight-year-old, with a partially developed brain, up against elite graduate engineers who design these games, along with a bevy of consulting psychologists. Free to choose? Hmmm. This is a question for another time, but should this behavioral manipulation be considered a form of child abuse?

How about pleasurable? There is little doubt that children take great pleasure in electronic games, otherwise they wouldn't play them at every opportunity. Maybe this heightened state of pleasure is the problem. Parents are concerned that these games monopolize their child's free time, pushing out other diversions. When Gelernter speaks of play he doesn't mean playing one sort of thing all the time, but rather having the freedom to “wander freely—go where they please, perch where they like.”

Our family standards chart included time for television watching but also included uncluttered “goof off time.” So maybe things haven't changed that much. Electronic games might replace television time on the chart. Television also entertained, manipulated, and sold commercial products, such as toys and breakfast cereals, to captivated kids.

There are some differences between electronic games and television, however. Electronic games are more addictive because they are interactive rather than passive, and research shows that they can lead to aggressive behavior. The other concern is that many parents are giving their children unrestricted access to play electronic games and television. Research shows that children today are exposed to seven or more hours of daily electronic interaction, including electronic games and television, and this is does not include use of the computer for school work.

Frustrated parents are at their wits end and some are seeking regulatory help from Washington. But as Tom Walters, of Fairfax, Virginia noted, “the question then is, what's worse: eight-year-olds who can't say no to addictive games or parents who can't say no to their children?”

Regardless of how much true work and true play is provided by iStuff, it seems apparent that kids need some daily “goof off time” to ensure that rest and play are still a part of their lives. Parents might be tempted to plan some activities during the “goof off time” on their family chart, but hopefully will resist this temptation, sit back, and see what happens. Won’t it be fun to discover what they do during their free time––where they perch?

Maybe they’ll do nothing. Maybe they’ll just take a nap!

Back to School