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Mad for Angry Birds

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I’m living with a young gadget fiend in the making.

For the last few months, my four-year-old son has become obsessed with two iPad games: Angry Birds, and Monster Life (in which the player raises cute little creatures and creates the “ultimate monster team” to save the world).

Left unchecked, he could play these games for hours. Sprawled out like a tiny potato, he moves the tablet around to achieve the best firing angles, shouts to us for backup (his skills surpassed mine weeks ago so I’m no help anymore), and intermittently stands on the couch to give us the play-by-play like a miniature Bob Costas: “Can you believe it? The space bird rockets through the air and knocks a pig off his scooter for 100 points!”

My concerns about this enthusiasm are twofold. One, I’m well aware that too much screen time isn’t good for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics tells us, “Young children learn best from — and need — interactions with humans, not screens,” and that kids with heavy media use are at risk of language delays and behavior problems down the road. (Meanwhile, a recent survey found that by age three, almost a third of kids have a TV in their room, and children ages two to three watch an average of 32 hours per week). TV and gadgets have also been linked to attention problems — a much-discussed Pediatrics study last year revealed the immediacy of that relationship. Four-year-olds were exposed to nine minutes of SpongeBob Squarepants, the mellow kids program Calliou, or a drawing exercise, and the ones who had soaked up the animated sponge cartoon performed the worst on attention and cognition tests directly afterwards. I think about this as I watch my son transfixed by flying, exploding birds and wonder if his mind is overstimulated.

For the time being, though, we have a simple solution for television: weekends only. During the week, TV is off. The greater problem is that, as my son gets older, I see that old-fashioned television viewing will be the least of my concerns. Screen time is already becoming varied and more interactive — making me wonder about the effects of all this technology on his growing brain.

Sure, now he’s just dabbling in games, but I’ve noticed that they occupy more mental space than your average TV show. Despite the house policy, screens have started invading the week. At breakfast the other day, I saw my son looking off in the distance as if pondering a deep philosophical question.

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“Whatcha thinking about, buddy?” I asked.

He looked at me as if just noticing my presence at the table for the first time.

“Did you see when the bird flew over that planet?” he responded.

He was playing Angry Birds in his head. Six months ago, when passive television was his only screen time, it was contained: We’d turn off Sesame Street and I never noticed my son with glazed eyes, rehashing scenes from Elmo’s world.

But interactive media is different. Replaying video game strategies, waiting anxiously on a text or Facebook message, going down an Internet rabbit hole — it all has a tendency to stay with us even after we pry ourselves away. Researchers are still sorting out the brain science behind this phenomenon: Do we receive a shot of dopamine when our phones buzz with a new message? How does the brain respond when it’s immersed in an online or virtual world?  There’s no doubt that interactive technology has a unique hold over our mental lives.

Indeed, this has even caused our family screen policy to slip: My son wakes up some mornings saying that he must take care of his monsters — one of them needs a feeding! He takes these tasks so seriously that we occasionally let him spend 10 minutes in the morning tending to them. Then I wonder if he spaces out during preschool meeting time thinking about his ultimate fighting team at home.

Our house is certainly not anti-technology. Not only do I see that social media gives kids an opportunity to connect to a wider community, I know that my son’s adeptness with interactive media and gadget mastery will be important to his academic and career future. My husband (a former video game designer) and I feel that we should invite technology in, keep up with it ourselves, and help our kids harness it for the better.

But while most parents seem to worry about cyber-bullying and privacy, I think more about my son’s developing neurons and how they will be shaped by this new frontier. There’s no doubt that screen-viewing, gaming, and other interactive media affect our kids’ brains — the question is how, and for good or bad (or both). For example, video games have been associated with increased visual, attention, and motor control skills (not surprising to me, since I’ve witnessed the focus and hand-eye coordination involved in my son’s gaming foray). Then again, other studies paint a not-so-rosy picture. In one, researchers took a sample of families who were planning to buy game consoles, gave one group the consoles immediately and had the others wait four months. After four months, the kids in the game-owning families had significantly reduced reading and writing skills and teachers reported greater learning difficulties.

I know the excitement and reward that comes with social media (indeed, Harvard researchers recently told us that sharing personal information online gives a hit to our brain’s dopamine reward centers), but I wonder if my children will be able to maintain some healthy social media boundaries after I’ve lost the ability to impose them. Psychologists have shown, for example, that when undergrad students were asked to “unplug” for a day and keep a diary of their feelings, many reported addiction and withdrawal symptoms. And a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics actually uses the term “Facebook depression” and notes, “the intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.”

Thankfully, I have some years to let scientists sort out the details of technology and a child’s brain. For now, the simple weekend-only screen policy works (when we stay strong). Later, maybe it will morph into a no-screens-after-8-p.m. rule, since technology use is known to negatively affect sleep. However it plays out, I’m both excited, and a little nervous, to see how technology will shape the lives of both my children.

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