Game Boys & Gadgets (And Whatever Happened to Reading?)

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David Grimac has every video game console a 9-year-old could ever want: Xbox 360, Nintendo GameCube, Atari 2600 and Sony PlayStations 1 and 2. At his ripe old age, he’s a self-professed “gamer,” and although it’s still months away, he already has something on his Christmas wish list.

“Sony Playstation 3,” he croons. “It comes out in November. It’s gonna be sooo cool!”

Ah, the technological age, and oh, the gadgets! Everywhere you look you see them: kids with cell phones, Ipods, Game Boys, laptops. In this swiftly progressing era, kids are growing up with a multitude of electronic devices at their fingertips, and they’re doing it rather effortlessly.

In school and at home, kids are figuring out how to balance and incorporate technology into their lives while having access to more information and content than any previous generation … or are they? A healthy balance among activities isn’t really something that concerns kids – that’s the parent’s realm. And increasingly, parents are discovering that parenting a technology habit is a real challenge.

Perhaps more than any other diversion, gaming has become a real issue in many households, dominating the family scene. Kids are playing video games in unprecedented numbers. According to the National Institute on Media and Family (NIMF), 92 percent of kids ages 2 – 17 play video games regularly ­– either with a console or on a hand-held such as a Game Boy. And while video games used to be reserved for older children, younger kids have zeroed in on them. It’s not unusual to see a preschool child glued to a screen with a controller clamped in his hand.

Is this something to be worried about? Maybe, but let’s be clear. Technology is an amazing tool; but it can be detrimental when we allow ourselves to be consumed by it to the exclusion of other activities – most important among them: reading.

It was 1989 when Game Boys exploded onto the scene. Before long, children everywhere had them in their hands (zip forward to 2006, and sales in this year alone have topped 71 million according to private research analysts at Piper Jaffray). If you were 5 years old in 1989, then by 2005 you possibly graduated college.

The jarring news: In 2005, literacy experts and educators were stunned by the results of an adult literacy assessment conducted by The National Center for Education Statistics. It showed that the reading proficiency of college graduates had declined substantially in the past decade, with no obvious explanation.

“It’s appalling – it’s really astounding,” says Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association, of the results. “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.”

So what’s going on? While there have been no substantial reports as to whether or not technology is actually good for children, if you tried to correlate a decline in reading with the increase in video gaming and children’s penchants for them and other “tech toys,” a link becomes feasible.

According to a 2003 study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, children 6 and younger spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (the figure measures the use of video games in addition to TV and computer), which is well over the amount of time they spend reading or being read to which comes out, on average, at roughly 39 minutes.

But not all kids’ reading is at-risk. The majority of them play their video games, do their homework, keep up their responsibilities and have other interests. It is those who are not keeping up who have the attention of experts.

“For some kids – our research indicates about one out of seven – they get so immersed in games that it literally starts to take over their lives. And, if it gets out of control, it can really start to look like a full-blown addiction,” says Dave Walsh, president of the NIMF.

Video game addiction is another topic altogether, which involves kids isolating themselves socially and going completely overboard with the amount of time spent playing games. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, the 92 percent of children who play computer or video games on a regular basis log approximately eight hours a week. Addicted players more than double that number, leading experts to wax ominously about it.

“I believe gaming is the greatest danger to people between 0 and 21 that has ever, ever come along the path of humanity,” says Keith Bakker, an addiction consultant with NIFM.

Finding Balance

What can parents do about typical kids who are in love with their tech toys? First, don’t worry about it if it’s not taking away from other activities and responsibilities, says Beth Wilson Saavedras in her book, Creating Balance in Your Child’s Life (Contemporary Books; $14.95). But DO learn where your child stands. Saavedras says certain behaviors are red flags when it comes to whether or not your child is too tech-toy-dependent.

She says to ask yourself: How does my child prefer to spend his free time? Does he tend to simply flip on a video game at home or even when vacationing away from home? What about when there’s company over? Does your child view it as an opportunity to coop up with a game controller? Is your child constantly in front of a laptop playing games or instant messaging or spending too much time (and money) for his iPod?


If your answer is yes to any of these, then your child’s tendencies may be in need of some modifications, Saavedras says. As hard as it sounds, she offers, set limits.

“Electronics are everywhere for our children to turn to when they’re bored, in a rut or simply feeling unimaginative,” Saavedras says. So take control – but be prepared; it may not be easy. For busy parents it’s often easier to give in and just let kids occupy themselves with their gadgets; some parents are hesitant to set limits. But as the most influential people in their children’s lives, parents have to model self-control with computer use, cell phones, video game playing and iPods if they are to expect the same from their children.

And certainly, if your child is a reluctant reader, developing a love of reading can only be done with a hands-on approach.

“Consider designating a week or two every few months as being screen free,” says Saavedras. “During this time, concentrate on reading more often and visiting the library. Bring in other pleasureable activities too, like playing card games, painting, taking walks or just about anything else you can think of to fill the void left by the lack of electronics.”

Let’s face it: technology is convenient, abundant and in many ways wonderful. But all of us – adults and children included – have to be careful to achieve balance in our lives in order to stay well-rounded and engaged in the real world.

Susan Day is editor in chief of this publication. She has four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 3 – all of whom love computers and video games.


the case for reading 15 minutes a day makes a difference

While technology may take away from an older child’s desire to read, the good news is you can still hook the little ones. According to the recent study “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers,” conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Children’s Digital Media Centers, youngsters are still eager to read and be read to.

The study – the first publicly released national one on media use among children ages 6 months to 6 years old – provides good reason for developing readers early on. It does not, however, measure older ages, or the ages most at-risk for reading decline.

So while the little ones are OK, literacy’s decline has actually been documented in two large-scale achievement studiest: the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reports Stuart Bernstein, director of the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia:

In the latter study, 38 percent of children in grade four performed below the basic level in prose literacy, which is the lowest level of achievement on the test. Bernstein says these children were unable to read a short paragraph and answer a question about it.

Bernstein says many studies show that the most important thing parents can do with their children is to read together – not for hours, but for about 15 minutes a day. Just 15 minutes a day exposes them to more than one million words per year and can create in them an interest for reading and books.

But make it fun. Literacy is competing with the fascinating and fast-paced world of video gaming. Pick good books your kids are interested in first.

Tried and True

Since 1979, the Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, $15) by Jim Trelease has been a staple in the homes of parents who know the importance of reading to children. Trelease developed his mission of bringing the joy of reading to children when he visited about 40 schools in one year to find that the best readers nearly always came from classrooms where the teachers read aloud daily and incorporated SSR (sustained silent reading) time into the daily routine. The Read-Aloud Handbook is currently in its sixth edition and is available at local bookstores or on amazon.com.

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