The effect touchscreens have on children may not be as grave as we originally thought.
There is no more common question about new technologies than "What is it doing to us?" This question is no more urgent than when applied to children, something that has become visible in the renewed inquiry into the effects of touchscreen devices on kids, who are so often stuck with their iPads and iPods training dragons, cutting ropes, and tapping little icons that explode with confetti when touched. "Normal Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen," Hanna Rosin wrote in a cover story for The Atlantic investigating the potential effects of using a computer thing, "and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to fit that now common tableau."
It's hard to imagine previous generations worrying about, say, the effects of idle time spent fishing on youth, where children's discipline and attention to productive chores on the homestead were squandered pulling small, inedible fish from the local stream while telling each other fanciful stories of rumor and make-believe. Yet the efficiency of iPads and iPhones in getting kids to sit down and shut up whenever a parent wants is unnerving, and doubly unnerving when the kid starts to seek out the iPad and iPhone on their own.
The touchscreen narcotic is in taxicabs, ATMs, the movie theater, and schools are rushing to incorporate iPad time in student curriculum. And even if you keep them out of your child's hands during adolescence, it's only a matter of time before she trades up for a hand-me-down iPod touch with some amoral classmate or Craigslist mercenary.
Picking up on this reliable fear, Nick Bilton investigated the subject for the New York Times after finding himself answerless when asked by his sister if her habit of keeping her kids quiet at the dinner table with iPads was destroying their brains. Bilton cites Gary Small, a doctor at UCLA and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, claiming "we do know that the brain is highly sensitive to stimuli, like iPads and smartphone screens, and if people spend too much time with one technology, and less time interacting with people like parents at the dinner table, that could hinder the development of certain communications skills."
There are, of course, lots of things directly acting on the brains of kids in the world today, so the fear is not unfounded. In 2003, 15 million Americans had used Adderall without a prescription. Between 2002 and 2005, Adderall use in the US increased 3100%. A 2012 study found 34.5% of college students took Adderall during school. In the preceding decade the U.S. grew to use 85% of the world's methylphenidate, and one in eight American children would be prescribed Ritalin at some point in their childhood.
It's not coincidence that descriptions of children enthralled to their touchscreens have a heavily narcotic connotation, with glassy-eyed, open-mouthed, far-away seeming minds. Attributing these qualities to touchscreens is a narcissistic bit of magical thinking that allows the nervous parent to vent their guilt while framing it in terms of a cultural force they are powerless to act against. Touchscreen devices are the perfect candidate for deflected vilification because even if they were patient-zero zombification devices, they are so widely distributed no one family could ever wipe them from their child's life. The touchscreen narcotic is in taxicabs, ATMs, the movie theater, and schools are rushing to incorporate iPad time in student curriculum. And even if you keep them out of your child's hands during adolescence, it's only a matter of time before she trades up for a hand-me-down iPod touch with some amoral classmate or Craigslist mercenary.
The more likely truth is that touchscreens have a nominal effect on children's brains, no different than any other technological distraction, like more efficient versions of LEGOs, coloring books, or board games. They are distractions, mechanistic objects that project simple but satisfying outputs based on their users inputs, complicated versions of the mobiles and noisemakers parents fill their children's cribs with in hopes of perfectly calibrating their intellectual development. If there is something to worry about in all these tools it's in the reaction of the parent to want something to shut their children up for a few minutes, grasping for simple, mechanistic ways to disengage from having to fret over them and their dumb questions about why grandma farts when she walks. Go cut some ropes, honey, it's not nice to say things like that.
Touchscreens work on kids in exactly the way we want them to, but we are still left with the discomfort of our desire to dampen their behavior in such a controlling way. Perhaps one day there'll be a drug to calm the fearful ADHD anxiety of parents. In the meantime, there's organic wine, Atavin, and binge-streaming Netflix on Apple TV. Think of touchscreen devices for kids as training devices, then, teaching them the basic pleasures of disengagement that will become a necessary survival skill for when they grow up and get real jobs like mommy and daddy.
Michael Thomsen is a frequent contributor to Complex.com and author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.