September 2, 2014 posted by
“The iPad is turning their brains to mush.” My wife’s urgent protestations as I walked through the door caught me by surprise.
“Are they hitting each other over the head with the devices?” I asked, genuinely puzzled by this proclamation. As someone who regularly advocates for the power of technology to transform education, engaging students in learning through play, and providing a platform for kids to be challenged at various ability levels, I was concerned that my six and nine year olds were refuting years of research in the matter of one-week of summer vacation.
My wife’s steely gazed blame, wordlessly reminding me of who of the two of us had brought this anathema into the home, suggested I needed to see what was going on for myself. I called out for my son, the older of the brood.
“Where are you pal?”
“In the room.”
Hmmm… vaguely abstract.
“Which room, there are several,” I reply.
“The one…with the table…the chairs… and the um, plates.”
Okay – that narrows it down to the kitchen, dining room, or any other place where a summer day’s snack had been set aside.
“Need more to go on bud.”
Not that it would have been hard to narrow down his location; the house isn’t that big. But I wanted to see exactly how mushy the brain had gotten. After all, this was a kid who had just a week ago completed third-grade well above grade-level.
“Okay son, one more time. What is the name of the room?”
“You know, the um, eating room.”
This is not good - what have I unleashed upon my family? I find my son in the dining room, firmly ensconced with one of our two iPads, deeply enthralled in a game of Minecraft. For the uninitiated, this is a video game, found on the web, game consoles, and mobile devices, that allows the player to build their own world – literally, out of blocks representing various substances. It has the appeal of Lego, without the annoying limitations of missing pieces. Players find different resources to create their various building objects, and can build anything they can imagine. It has the added bonus in that players can simultaneously play with each other online. This could be in the form of cooperative building, showcasing one another’s creations, or most often, based on what I’ve found in observing my son and his friends, building fortresses designed to withstand attacks and then testing that durability, which was exactly what was happening at that moment.
In the game, a horde of Creepers, zombie like creatures, were being unleased upon my son’s world, by one of his friends, who, though several miles away in real-life, was simultaneously playing Minecraft from his location, and at that moment, knocking down walls in my son’s building to let in the Creeper masses. I could only hope that the friend could at least name the room in which he was currently squirreled away, though I suspected he was equally oblivious to his own surroundings at that very moment.
For despite numerous research studies that have shown intellectual and developmental benefits from playing Minecraft – spatial reasoning, abstract thinking, motor planning, sequencing, social cooperation, cause and effect relationships – to name a few, what I was witnessing in my son was nothing more intellectual than the age-old ‘knock down the sandcastle.’ Build it up, tear it down, just with ravenous zombies to spice it up.
Well, this is why you have more than one kid, when one proves you wrong, you always have a fallback…
I find my daughter in the living room. A quick visual scan seems promising; she’s laughing at the iPad screen in her hands, moving the screen around – okay, this could be good, engaged movement, maybe she’s playing one of those physics based motion games like Ball Breaker, where players’ grasp of motion mechanics guides how they move the tablet to keep the ball in motion, and destroying various objects along the way for points. I approach about to thank her for proving Daddy right, when I notice she is simply moving the screen to remove the glare coming onto her Netflix fueled tv show.
I catch my wife’s smug look of satisfaction as she knows the realization of my flawed logic has sunk in.
But, my kids’ use of the iPads actually proves a salient point – one that has absolutely nothing to do with a degeneration of their cognitive ability.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long cautioned against the evils of too much screen-time. But as screens have come to permeate our lives in so many different ways, many thought leaders have raised the question, are all screens created equal? The answer has led to a nuanced consideration of what constitutes beneficial versus brain-mushing media.
Passive media, wherein the viewer is a one-way consumer of information – the tv show plays, we watch it – has long been cautioned as being detrimental for young children, and even older children at higher doses or based on subject matter. Engaged media, think Sesame Street, where the programming specifically speaks to the audience to encourage some sort of response or action, has been found to have shown some developmental benefits in multiple studies, but the quality of the programming is a determining factor in the outcomes. Finally, today’s technology opened up the world to interactive media, or applications wherein the user is required to be responsive to prompts and events on the screen, similar to how we are responsive to stimuli in the real-world, and allowing for cause and effect actions that can lead to learning.
And therein lies the lesson learned – today’s devices are multi-taskers – yes, they can play interactive media, but they can just watch media passively too. And even when our kids engage in interactive media, the benefits of that are based on the design of the app itself, and in the context. Any literate person can read Shakespeare, but few of us fully understand the Bard in the absence of facilitated instruction. The same holds true for even the best of educational technology.
And so, my kids’ brains hadn’t turned to mush, but mine may have. I forgot the cardinal rule of educational technology – the education part. When left to our own devices, most of us choose the path of least resistance – for my daughter that was old Leave it to Beaver episodes on Netflix (could have been worse, right?). And for my son, though using an app that has been shown to have educational benefit, bereft of facilitated instruction, it became the medium for a common form of boy play – battle.
But it wasn’t all bad – the mushy-brained responses were due more to distraction than a permanent rewiring, and it was all curable by some structure and limits that involved time to discuss and play apps together, lots of time away from the screen, and yes, some opportunities to just veg or play how they wanted.
For in the end, all of this technology is just another tool we can use, and like its simpler brethren the hammer, it’s how we wield it that determines whether we build something or smash our thumb.