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John Rosemond: Device-dependent children can be difficult, demanding

A 4-year-old boy informed his preschool teacher – a friend of mine – that he’d broken his iPad.

“Oh!” my friend said. “What a shame. Did you drop it?”

“No,” the boy said, very matter-of-factly. “I got mad that my mom wanted me to share it with my sister, so I slammed it on the table and it broke.”

His next sentence: “Now we have two of them so I don’t have to share.”

When the teacher conveyed this to me – as an example of the devolution of parenting since she began teaching – the first thing that came to mind was a gift I received in the mid-1980s from a complete stranger. I had written a column in which I speculated that video games were addictive and shortened a child’s attention span. A few weeks later, UPS delivered a state-of-the-art Nintendo accompanied by a lengthy letter from the president of Nintendo Corp. It took him nine pages to tell me that I was dead wrong, that video games stimulated all manner of intellectual and social skills. They are, he said, a veritable fount of marvelous benefit.

Thirty years later, reputable studies have found that video games are addictive, shorten attention span, and are associated with depressed school performance. In addition, a significant number of parents have told me stories about video-obsessed kids who are moody, explosive, withdrawn, and suffer sleep difficulties. Research done by respected people such as psychologist Jane Healy (“Your Child’s Growing Mind,” “Endangered Minds,” and “Failure to Connect”) finds that electronic, screen-based devices actually interfere with normal brain development.

But to many parents the facts don’t seem to matter. What matters is that their kids do not feel different – that they have what their friends have. I am reminded of a mother who asked me what I thought about giving iPads and the like to toddlers. I told her, in a nutshell, what the research has discovered. She then said, “Oh, but my daughter (then 2 years old) likes hers so much! I just can’t see taking it away from her.”

A year later, the child demands constant attention. She cannot be left with a babysitter, so her parents take her everywhere they go and take turns entertaining her. She is, their friends agree, becoming more of a “handful” with every passing day.

Electronic devices do not help young children learn to entertain themselves. A child who is self-entertaining is being independent. He’s learning how to solve real-world problems. Developmental psychologist Burton White claimed that the ability to play independently and creatively on a regular basis for more than an hour at a time without requesting adult attention was the best marker of developmental health in a 3-year-old.

Electronic devices of the sort in question induce dependency. And as is the case with the above little girl, when the electronics-dependent child doesn’t have access to electronics, she will transfer her inability to entertain herself to the most available adults. They, in turn, are likely to describe her as “difficult and demanding.”

These games do children no favors. That, I’m convinced, is unarguable. Also unarguable, however, is that children like them.

The question, then, becomes: So what?

Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at johnrosemond.com; email him at questions@rosemond.com.

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