Criticisms towards electronic toys

This week, the WSJ has a critical paper about electronic toys that I found interesting. It starts by reporting the enthusiasm geared towards those devices: the "fusion of technology and personality" of robots, the "Vtech V. Smile Baby Infant Development System claims to go beyond passive developmental videos"... and then criticizes the underlying arguments behind them, questioning their "educational" potential:

two recent studies suggest that the oft-touted educational benefits of such toys are illusory, and child development experts caution that kiddie electronics, even those bought purely for fun, can have negative side effects such as inhibiting creativity and promoting short attention spans. (...) A two-year, government-funded study by researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland found that electronic toys marketed for their supposed educational benefits, such as the LeapFrog LeapPad, an interactive learning activity toy, and the Vtech V provided no obvious benefits to children. "In terms of basic literacy and number skills I don't think they are more efficient than the more traditional approaches," researcher Lydia Plowman told the Guardian. Although no Luddite (Ms. Plowman makes the rather perverse recommendation that parents give children their old cellphones so that they can learn to "model" adult behavior with technology) (...) At a Boston University conference on language development in November, researchers from Temple University's Infant Laboratory and the Erikson Institute in Chicago described the results of their research on electronic books. The Fisher-Price toy company, which contributed funding for the study, was not pleased. "Parents who are talking about the content [of stories] with their child while reading traditional books are encouraging early literacy," says researcher Julia Parish-Morris, "whereas parents and children reading electronic books together are having a severely truncated experience." Electronic books encouraged a "slightly coercive parent-child interaction," the study found, and were not as effective in promoting early literacy skills as traditional books.

I also liked this comment:

"A lot of these toys direct the play activity of our children by talking to them, singing to them, asking them to press buttons and levers," notes Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, co-director of the Temple University Infant Lab, in a recent research summary. "I look for a toy that doesn't command the child, but lets the child command it."

Why do I blog this? well those critics are harsh and it certainly reflects one part of the reality. It's interesting though and they should no be dismissed. However, I am sure there are some relevance like how this tool can encourage new types of behaviors like new forms of "sociality" based on them: for instance the presence of a robot lead to a discussion between kids or the family about its behavior (see "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit -- Twentieth Anniversary Edition" (Sherry Turkle)for that matter). Moreover, the possibility to hack/program some of those toys can be of interest too.