The case for boredom: When a crayon is better than an iPad

The case for bringing back boredom and limiting young kids' use of touch screens.

To those parents grappling with how to best integrate touch-screen technology into their young children's lives, a number of child-development experts propose a more fundamental question: Is it necessary, really, to have your toddler swiping at an iPad or an Android device at all?

Many advocates for young children, including groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood, suggest that the answer is quite often "No."

These organizations are not anti-technology – indeed, they point out studies showing that for children over 3 years old, some exposure to thoughtfully constructed media can be beneficial. But they warn that the growing use, and misuse, of touch-screen technology among young children is getting in the way of other sorts of play – the developmental bread and butter of childhood.

"The new media doesn't replace the old media" such as television or computer games, says Susan Linn, a children's therapist and cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "We know that time with screens takes babies and children away from hands-on creative play, active play, and face-to-face time with adults."

Looking at a screen cannot replace that sort of engagement with the world, Ms. Linn and others say – even when the applications involved are marketed as "educational."

Toddlers, for instance, learn a tremendous amount by tactile doing, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. A child drawing a picture, for instance, is not simply learning how to put an image on a page but is discovering the feel of the crayon, the change resulting from how hard the crayon is pushed into the paper, the fact that wax does not taste particularly good, and even the reality that drawing on paper is usually deemed acceptable but walls are off limits.

All of this, as much as the actual picture, sparks toddlers' development and creativity.

Earlier this year, Linn's group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Fisher-Price and Open Solutions for what it said was false and deceptive marketing of its baby apps as "educational." Although it's more difficult to take similar action against "educational" games for older kids, Linn and others say parents should be wary.

But the potential problems with touch screens do not stop at what they are not. The FTC found that 60 percent of children's apps gather information about the user, sometimes including geographical location. Apps built around known, licensed media characters often manipulate children into either buying more material online or products in stores. Many apps, children's advocates say, train toddlers to expect instant gratification – the puzzle piece fits and the screen explodes in color and music.

Handing the phone or tablet to children to keep them busy during an airplane or car ride has its drawbacks, Linn says – even as she is sympathetic to the need of parents for a break.

"The problem with starting kids out young, with every time they have to amuse themselves they're handed a screen, is that they never have the opportunity to develop the inner resources to amuse themselves," Linn says. "I think we need to bring back boredom. The experience of having nothing to do is critical to creativity."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.