The New Dr. Spock Says Video Games are Bad for Kids

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Were Dr. Benjamin Spock, the original author of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, still alive today, I might have a beef with him. I had the great honor of speaking on a panel for the Nuclear Freeze movement with Dr. Spock in the 1980s, when he was nearly 80 years old, but still ahead of his time, arguing on behalf of reducing nuclear weapons. Taking the reigns of the most recent version of Dr. Spock’s baby-raising guide, Robert Needleman, MD presents the view that video games are bad for kids and can and should be avoided.

Dr. Needleman correctly states that video games are so engrossing because they “provide instant feedback, hold attention by automatically adjusting level of difficulty, and by providing frequent rewards.” At the same time, Dr. Needleman writes that video games “have the ability to capture children’s imaginations and train their emotions to accept violence.” He also appears to marginalize the positive aspects of video games into mere eye-hand coordination gains and visual-logical thinking skills. I respectfully  disagree.

This perspective is consistent with the bias on the part of many pediatricians and educators against the use of interactive digital media with children. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics states  “television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2”. But this view is changing; not everyone believes that video games are bad for kids. Until March 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was strongly against the use of digital media with young children.  However, their new position statement notes “We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development”. Similar sentiments are seen in the position papers of respected organizations such as the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and the Fred Rogers Center.

I believe that the best approach with young children and digital media is one in which we stress those activities that are most critical to their early development. These include physical and sensory play, interactions with family and caretakers, and opportunities for touching, feeling and experiencing…but not necessarily avoiding digital play altogether.  A 12 month old child watching a short video while mom makes dinner won’t be scarred for life, and an 18 month old playing with an app that teaches shapes is actually apt to learn something.

Dr. Needleman — who is well-known for the importance he places on reading — appears to be missing out on the educational values of video games for many struggling readers. The engrossing nature of video games and digital media provides readers with immediate and non-judgmental feedback. Many of the better reading apps allow a child to simply touch a word to hear its pronunciation, or choose to listen to an entire book or chapter where each word is lit up while being read aloud. He does not take into account that many engaging video games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Braid, and Cave Story, require a great deal of reading in order to be successful. In addition, many apps take advantage of their engaging features to encourage additional reading practice that might not occur in a traditional setting. Tools including e-readers such as the Kindle or iPad, services such as Blogger, or apps and software such as Disney Comics or BrainPop Jr. can encourage a variety of reading skills.

In my estimation, Dr. Needleman does hit the nail on the head when he states “video games are ideal teaching tools.” Regrettably, his focus is more on the “unfortunate” skills that video games teach, rather than encouraging parents and educators to find and nurture the positive ways that video games can be used for learning. The emphasis made in the ninth edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care is on the dangers and the negative aspects of video games and technology. I hope that the tenth edition will include suggestions around how video games and technologies can be used in a more positive fashion to help the children’s growth, development, and learning in the 21st century.

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