The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the U.S. in February 1986, when I was three years old.
I remember being a young child, playing Super Mario Bros. with my older brother, ineffectively waving a plastic gun at animated ducks, or spinning out within the first few seconds of a new level of Excitebike. This was an entirely new technology to me, and truly, everyone.
My parents recognized how it distracted me, even though I didn't really know what I was doing, so the system remained a fixture of my early life.
Of course, as I got a little older, parents got wise. After several hours of playing Rampage or Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! or Megaman, the familiar refrain of "Get off of that thing, go play outside!" would force my friends and I to venture into the world and, perhaps, communicate with each other verbally.
Today's parents are faced with a similar challenge, and the "go play outside" line is no longer sufficient. Many American children can simply take their Nintendos with them, in the form of phones and tablets, and even if you keep them out of your own home, what do you think they're playing with at their friends' houses?
Take the example of Kara Teising, a Nashville mother who discovered her 18-month-old son was distracted by iPads and iPhones for much of his time at preschool.
From The Atlantic:
Teising said that before the iPad and phone incidents, she hadn’t thought much about when she wanted her son to begin using digital technology at school. “When we initially toured the school before he was born, we saw that they had computers in the three-year-old classroom,” she said. “We didn’t know how we felt about that—but we had to make that decision so much sooner than we thought. It was not what we were expecting.”
Though many parents don't think twice about exposing their young children to entertainment technology from an early age, Teising's quandary brings up intriguing questions: How young is too young for digital techology? Are children who play on iPads subject to a developmental disadvantage? What about those who raise Luddite babies? Are they somehow falling behind a new curve of modernity?
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any consumption of media by children younger than two. When the policy originated in 1999, it only applied to television but has since been expanded to include digital media and other entertainment technology.
As with most things, the research remains inconclusive. There is some evidence that children who consume more than two hours a day of television or other digital media may exhibit attentional deficiencies later in life, though these studies are still in dispute.
Regardless of the research findings, digital entertainment for children isn't going away. In fact, in January 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that "8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day."
Similar, a Pearson study found that over half of students in that age range use smartphones as part of their education, and they overwhelmingly want to be able to do more with their phones and tablets. A full 90% of students believe that tablets make learning more fun.
So, for concerned parents, it seems more a matter of "when" than "if." Even if a parent successfully keeps their children away from digital technology for the first few years of their lives, they'll almost certainly be using tablets and phones to do their work once they get to elementary school.
Are those first few years of brain development too important to be left to an iPad? We still don't know for sure. From a purely observational perspective, iPad games and '80s Nintendo games can't be that much different. Although, admittedly, Temple Run looks a lot better than this: