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Piece of Mind: Digital clutter & the way kids learn

Posted: Thursday, Apr 18th, 2013

My very first job was babysitting the neighbors’ two boys who lived across the alley. My older brother and sister were their babysitters before me. You could say that the Akers’ kids were instrumental in Gabe and Isaac’s development.

When my brother baby-sat, Isaac was only 18 months old and even then watching Godzilla movies was a staple activity in the house. My brother was always amazed that baby-Isaac could get the Godzilla tape out of the box, put it in right-side up in the VHS player, and hit play. It turns out that watching movies is an even more basic human need than say, talking or going to the bathroom on your own.

By the time I was babysitting, Isaac was potty-trained, fork-and-spoon trained, and DVD trained. This made babysitting much easier.

Writer Hanna Rosin writes in this month’s Atlantic Magazine that “Norman Rockwell never painted ‘Boy Swiping Finger on Screen,’ and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to accommodate that now-common tableau.” In my brief 26 years, I can even see the change in desire for and access to technological entertainment. Rosin adds that “Not that long ago, there was only the television, which theoretically could be kept in the parent’s bedroom or locked behind a cabinet. Now there are smartphones and iPads, which wash up in the domestic clutter alongside keys and gum and stray hair ties.”

What impact, if any, does all of this smart clutter have on a child’s development? Well, with touch technology, the jury is still out. However, studies do show that technology can be helpful developmentally if it is interactive — if it can successfully trick kids into thinking that the person or object on the screen is responsive and aware of their actions. This is what made TV shows like Blue’s Clues so measurably successful: studies show that kids 2.5 years old and older who watched Blue’s Clues made much larger gains in flexible thinking and problem solving in comparison to kids that had not watched the show.

Touch screen technology can also be helpful developmentally for children when the games or messages are delivered by a trusted figure. This has been shown in studies with Elmo and other lesser-known characters. Even when Elmo delivers wrong information, like calling a pear an orange, children will still pick Elmo.

But what does this really tell us? That with trust, we can get kids to believe lies? Well, maybe that too, but what it really tells us is something we already knew: that for healthy development, children need interaction with people they trust. Perhaps the uncomfortable thing is that we are getting better at reproducing ourselves as attentive, affectionate, talking monkeys and hippos.

“The war is over. The (digital) natives won,” says Marc Prensky, an education and technology writer. Perhaps the best thing now is to treat all of this digital clutter like the slinky, Candyland, and every other toy that gets lost under the bed. We have not designed ourselves out of a job. At the end of the day, it’s not an iPad that tucks a child in or fixes an evening snack. It’s a loving parent or the neighbor kid from across the street.

Gena Akers can be contacted at


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