I recently watched Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. The film is centered on a family with three young boys growing up in Waco, Texas during the late 1940s. It chronicles their childhood, the ups and downs of their family life and the long, languorous days that seem to stretch on interminably as the years go by. They play in nature, wade in streams and entertain themselves for hours on end with old tin cans. I was struck by the contrast of their "play" to that of my 8-year-old nephew and 4-year-old niece who recently came for a week-long visit. They spent a good portion of their time staring at tiny hand-held screens that were screeching and flashing. They sat next to one another, but were so riveted by their individual experience that they did not interact with each other. On this same visit, I gave my four-year-old niece a new doll for her birthday. She opened the box with great zeal, and professed her love immediately. Fifteen minutes later, her new doll was placed nicely in the corner and she was back on her device. When I asked her if there was a reason that she was not playing with the doll, she shrugged her shoulders and informed me that the doll "did not do anything."
Enter any toy store and you will find that most toys do "a lot." They beep, buzz, and have flashing lights and screens. They have everything your child needs in order to be entertained, mesmerized, bombarded and distracted. Toys that do "a lot" are actually doing "too much" and unfortunately, your child is doing "too little." Most importantly, what they "do not do" is develop creativity and imagination. Children must be active participants in order to exercise and grow their imagination and creativity; it cannot be downloaded or uploaded. The simple act of thinking is very challenging when the background noise is so invasive and the pace is preset at whirlwind speed. The collateral damage of inattention is immense. It affects the ability to learn, to think, to read, to study, to concentrate at school and to form deep and connected relationships. As a psychotherapist, the psychological harm I have seen is enormous!! A child's self-esteem takes a huge beating when they don't "get" what is going on around them, when they do poorly in school or when they can't connect with other kids.
Although there is no single cause for the epidemic of attention disorders, it makes intuitive sense that over-stimulation on a constant basis cannot possibly be helping matters. According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of children 3-17 years of age diagnosed with ADHD is 5.3 million to date and that number is on the rise.
That number is extraordinarily high, however, I believe that it profoundly underestimates the number of children that are having difficulties paying attention, but do not meet a level that is significant enough to diagnose. When the threshold for excitement is so high, the ability and desire to concentrate on nuanced and subtle aspects of life become uninteresting and in the words of my two daughters, "annoying."
The sharpening of attention skills develops over the course of many years and essentially the brain needs to practice paying attention in order to become proficient. Research has shown that computers and computer games often conflict with the brain activities needed for the development of these "attention" skills. Too much sensory input makes it difficult to pay attention to only one activity and eventually impairs the overall ability to stay focused. It is imperative that parents encourage play that nurtures focus and attunement. You can accomplish this through choices of toys and games that you allow your child to play with, and most importantly, through the time you take to connect and attune with your child.
If you are living a fast-paced and busy life, the downtime you get from a seemingly innocuous "device" that passively entertains your kid, is probably a welcome respite. However, Gameboys, computers, cell phones and the plethora of over-stimulating toys should not be your babysitter. I am not advocating a militant, anachronistic journey back to the days of handmade wooden toys and found objects. What I am advocating is that you as parents take a conscientious look at how your child is spending his or her playtime. Make sure that all of your child's free time is not screentime. Choose toys and games that inspire creativity, artistic development, musical ability and physicality. Try to choose activities and games that motivate children to relate with each other. For babies, sometimes even simple objects like stacking cups and wooden spoons can be used imaginatively in multiple ways. For older children, think about toys that do not do "a lot" such as dolls, action figures, blocks, trains, instruments, art projects and books. Beware, you may encounter some resistance when you choose Legos rather than PlayStation, but stay the course.
The window for creativity and attunement that is open during childhood is vital to the development of the person, so give it plenty of thought before you plop your child down with an electronic toy that totally consumes him for hours and turns him into a zombie. Give your child's brain a chance to work, and not be worked on.