Hold the Phone

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate our philosophical opinions from our self-interest. Do we favor certain government programs, for example, or tax policy, or whatever because we think they benefit the country as a whole, or because they benefit us personally? They can do both, of course, but it certainly muddies the water.

That’s why I usually refrain from expressing strong feelings about kids and electronics. Coming from a print publisher who serves the more traditional toy market, an anti-technology rant is likely to come off as biased and self-serving.

Having said that, I should also acknowledge that I am not a fan of our cellphone-based culture, regardless of whatever effect it may have on my business. Part of that is just an old-school affection for the physical objects I grew up with. I like cars, books, bats and balls, board games, and all manner of mechanical gadgets. The virtual version of those things holds no special appeal to me.

The other part is the alarming disconnect between people in general and the immediate world around them. Last Thanksgiving I looked around the table and found that most of the extended family, including children, had a phone either in hand, on the table, or in their laps.

Whenever I watch a major sporting event on television, I can’t resist scanning the shots of the crowd to count the number of fans who are looking down rather than up. Then I will inevitably wonder aloud about the price of those Superbowl tickets, and what could possibly be so compelling on a small screen.

Those people are within their rights, of course, but that’s not the case with phone addicts in many other circumstances. Every day, for example, I see people driving cars while their attention is at least partly on their phones. Sometimes it’s merely annoying, like when you have to honk your horn to tell the guy in front of you that the light has turned green, and other times it’s truly terrifying, like when a car coming toward you crosses the center line for no apparent reason.

I’ll spare you the rest of my litany of cellphone complaints – you probably have your own list of pet peeves anyway – and I won’t pretend that I don’t have a smartphone, or that I don’t see any value to them. Having so much information and capability at one’s fingertips is constantly amazing, and I often wonder how different my life would have been had that technology been developed a generation earlier.

Nonetheless, were I given the choice of a world with or without cellphones, I would choose without. I realize that puts me out there on the fringe, and I sometimes feel like I belong to an isolated band of eccentrics.

That’s why I was so interested in an article I came across last October in The New York Times. It was entitled “The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected,” but what really got my attention were the first two sentences. “America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens – even offering digital only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.”

According to the author, Nellie Bowles, the primary concern of the educational community, until recently, was that affluent students would have earlier access to the internet, and would develop tech skills that would give them an even greater advantage over poorer kids than they already have. There would be a digital divide, in other words, that would exacerbate the division between the haves and have-nots.

That dynamic, she says, has now been turned on its head. The backlash has been particularly strong in places like Silicon Valley, where parents of young children are among the wealthiest, and also the most tech-savvy in the country. There they have established screen-free private schools, stricken electronics from Christmas lists, and deputized their nannies as “phone police.”

Elsewhere in America, parents are banding together into support groups, knowing that withholding electronic toys from children is not going to make them very popular around the house. Misery likes company, but more critical to the effort is the validation that comes from other parents who are making the same argument to your kids’ friends.

One such group, in Kansas City, is called START, which stands for “Stand Together And Rethink Technology.” Around 150 parents gather monthly in school libraries for the sole purpose of discussing the need to separate kids from screens.

Thankfully, parents are not alone in the struggle. The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement in early December that explicitly warns parents about the dangers of electronic screens and extols the value of traditional toys. I strongly recommend that you read the entire statement, and that you convey to parents the advice it offers them, including the following.

• Understand the most educational toy is one that fosters interactions between caregivers and children in supportive, unconditional play.

• Choose toys that are not overstimulating and encourage children to use their imaginations.

• Use children’s books to develop ideas for pretending together while playing with toys.

• Limit video game and computer game use by young children. Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than one hour per day for children 2 years or older, and avoided in those younger than 18-24 months.

I know these ideas are not new to you, nor to me either, but unfortunately a lot of parents, and even a lot of teachers, still suffer from the misconception that early exposure to electronic devices will somehow make kids more tech savvy, and better equipped to thrive in a digital world. People in the technology sector scoff at that notion, because they understand that the future lies in things like artificial intelligence and big data, not in being able to use a cellphone. They tend to worry a lot more about their kids having an attention deficit disorder, or a behavior problem, or lacking the social skills required to find a job or a mate.

Those kids are likely to grow up without excessive screen time, surrounded by attentive parents and traditional toys, but others may not be so lucky. Recent studies have shown that lower-income teenagers spend about 50 percent more time using screens than do higher-income teens, and that African-American and Hispanic children are exposed to screens much more than white children are.

Eventually, I think that most people will come to see the risk inherent in the proliferation of screens in our culture, and consequently the importance of traditional toys. In the meantime, way too many kids are exercising their thumbs, and very little else.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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