Ban everything. All of it / by James Kelleher

The Huffington Post published a gross advertorial an article by Cris Rowan last week, in which she argues for a ban on all handheld devices for children under 12. Rowan blames touchscreens for a dizzying list of societal ills – aggression, addiction, obesity, mental illness – but is conspicuously silent on whether they can teach children to critically evaluate attention-seeking hogwash dressed up as academic rigour.

David Kleeman quickly responded with this rebuttal of Rowan’s conclusions. Melinda Wenner Moyer jumped in too, asserting that Rowan makes “vast generalizations and extrapolations that are anything but scientific.” The tl/dr summary of these responses: correlation is not causation; please stop trolling for hate-clicks.

So should we be satisfied with this as an example of the internet’s ability to correct shrill scaremongering with the healing power of nuance? As I write this, Rowan’s original piece has a staggering 1.1m Facebook likes, whereas Kleeman’s rebuttal has just 3,900. When you talk to parents about this story, it’s always the former they know about. We like to read scary things that seem to confirm our own anxieties about the world. We’re not quite so fascinated by boring old follow-ups that challenge the alarming headlines.

Disclaimer: as you can see from the links around this blog, I make educational apps for kids, so I’m biased, but not hopelessly compromised. We work hard to make non-sucky products that credit children and their parents with intelligence, and we’re not interested in stuffing them with ads or in-app purchases. I also think that good quality apps, or games, or TV, or books, can be useful learning tools as well as good entertainment.

My own perspective is that Rowan’s is the latest in a long line of scare pieces about technology, a parallel strand of journalism that has run alongside my life from the first time I clapped eyes on Pong up to the present day. This isnt anything new: people have made sweeping anti-technology arguments – and acted on them – for centuries. But I felt this weird reality split early on.

I grew up with the early generations of home consoles and computers. Our neighbours had a Spectrum; we had an Amstrad, and they were used to play games on. Some of them were awful and they all took far too long to load, but mostly the time we spent with videogames was fun. It was sometimes solitary, but often very social. Games broadened our collective imagination and opened us up to new forms of expression. My media diet was varied too – by the time I had upgraded to an Amiga (not meaning to brag) I obsessed over music, films, and books as much as I did over a new Bitmap Brothers or Sensible Software release. I would look at those happy experiences, and then I would look at the media narrative around games, concentrated on the salacious tropes of addiction, violence, and mental dysfunction, and it seemed like a dispatch from a war reporter in a land I didn’t recognise.

HuffPo will defend publishing this kind of scaremongering clickbait by claiming it’s some kind of neutral container for opinion and, well, they offer a right of reply, don’t they? So no harm done. Really though, it’s deeply cynical. They ride the traffic on both sides of an argument that didn’t deserve the attention in the first place, and the author of the piece gets to sell a few more webinars or land some extra consulting gigs. Everyone goes away happy, except the millions that take the original article at face value.

The real damage that this stuff does is that it can isolate parents from what their kids are looking at, reading, playing with. The message is that it’s enough to mandate a set amount of time using an iPad or watching TV, but don’t bother trying to understand or enjoy the same things that your children do because really, it’s all bad and the only thing you can do is to hold your nose and tolerate it in limited quantities.

That approach short-changes kids. What little research we do have suggests that young children get more out of games and apps (and books) when there’s an adult taking a genuine interest in what they’re doing, and talking about it. That’s not to say it’s always easy to do so – Peppa Pig fatigue is now recognised as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation – but it can be rewarding too. Even fun. So we could try that, or we could just ban everything that we couldn’t be bothered to understand.