- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

We know teens are crazy about their cell phone apps.

But toddlers?

Yes, they are the latest market for iPhone applications, such as the recently released Shape Builder and ABC Memory Match. The former allows toddlers to make shapes of everything from musical instruments to animals by dragging and dropping digital puzzle pieces on the iPhone’s touch screen; the latter asks tots to match letters.

Online reviews of the games are generally very positive.

Toy market analyst Len Simonian echoes the upbeat sentiment: “I think they can be a great way to engage your child whether you’re in the grocery store line or in the car.

“They also eliminate the need to bring yet another gadget, like a portable DVD player,” says Mr. Simonian, who’s also president of doll-maker the Only Hearts Club.

In other words, parents have one less thing to think about, one less thing to pack.

What’s not to love?

Plenty, says Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health.

“These things don’t make your kids smarter,” Dr. Rich says, adding that, if anything, they can stifle creativity and socialization because they feed words and images rather than encourage imagination.

“Just because kids can mimic something doesn’t mean they understand it or have learned it,” he says.

For a toddler, learning shapes and letters comes in a distant second place after socialization, which is the number-one developmental goal for that age group.

How to learn socialization? By interacting with other humans, not by burying your face in a console.

“What about conversation? What about standing in the grocery store line and talking about the colors of the chewing gum packets? What about giving them a little notebook and letting them draw and write what they see instead of making them psychologically dependent on digital media?” Dr. Rich says, adding there is a link between screen time and anxiety in young children.

Sure, but give parents a break, says David Kleeman, president of the American Center for Children and Media, a group that helps guide the children’s media industry.

“The last thing parents need is more guilt,” Mr. Kleeman says. “If this is something that allows [parents] to cook dinner or take a shower, then what’s the big deal?”

The main thing is to see these apps and other children’s media for what they are: fun and games, he says.

“The key is not to overestimate these things,” Mr. Kleeman says. “Don’t fall for the hype that if you spend half a day on these games it’s a ticket to Harvard,” he says. “It’s not.”

Don’t believe the alarmists either — the people who claim that a few moments of television time will destroy your child, he says.

Dr. Rich agrees but says — if at all possible — unplugged time is preferable to plugged time because of the “displacement effect.”

In other words, what are children missing out on while they’re engaged in screen time? Are they not going outside for physical play? Are they not talking to their parents? Are they not using their imagination?

“We feel we have to entertain and engage our kids every minute,” Dr. Rich says. “That’s why kids are so anxious today. They’re constantly running from one thing to the next.”

Dr. Rich’s advice: “Bring back boredom.”

When kids are “bored,” they let their imaginations run wild and that helps build their neurons and synapses, also know as their brain architecture, he says.

And what will give them an edge in society is not being able to parrot what they see on the screen, but rather building resilient, strong brain architecture, he says.

“Real creativity doesn’t happen when we’re bombarded with external stimuli. It requires a vacuum,” he says.

Mr. Kleeman, though, doesn’t buy the idea of the “displacement effect.”

“Kids’ lives can’t be boiled down to one moment,” Mr. Kleeman says. “These iPhone apps are not going to prevent you from going to the Shenandoah for a hike. Maybe you’re just playing it on the way out there.”

The apps aren’t meant to be played for hours at a time anyway, Mr. Simonian says.

“I don’t think parents are buying it to have their kids on it for hours on end,” he says. “It’s just an added 99-cent benefit of having the phone.”

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