The Dangers of Interactive Toys

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A cynical conjunction of technology, mass media, and mass merchandising promises to intensify the negative effects on children of recent trends in the television and toy industries.

With the introduction of "interactive" toys, the violence in children's programming--and also in their play--has reached new heights. Equipped with toy guns that interact electronically with the television, children can now participate in the killing they formerly only watched.

Such toys, in addition, impair the development of imagination and the formation of political ideas in children. They should be banned.

Even before this latest marketing "innovation," the tying of toys to television was profoundly affecting children's play. Since 1984, when the Reagan Administration deregulated children's television programming, whole lines of toys have been manufactured that replicate elements of television cartoons. Our research shows that as children have been encouraged to play with these toys, their play has been losing its inventive, personalized quality and is looking more like an imitation of television.

Single-purpose toys coordinated with the programs have trapped children's play inside a limited set of parameters. They have kept children from using play as a means of integrating their own imaginations with their experience. The result, a rote, repetitious distortion of play, does not serve children's development as it should.

Furthermore, the emphasis on violence in children's television and toys has produced an exaggerated focus on violence in play. In their efforts to understand and play out the scenarios they see on television, children are confined by the limitations of the toys. Rather than being able to explore violence in play, as their parents did in games such as "cops and robbers," children are directed by the television-based toys to play out the violence in prescribed ways.

Simply put, television, the toy, and the packaging combine to program specific character attributes and storylines, to the detriment of children's development. The elaboration that occurs in genuine play--the expansion of ideas that lays the foundation for conceptual growth--cannot occur.

In this context, the new interactive toys are a particularly frightening development. Threatening to eliminate the last remaining opportunities for real play, they leave children no room to invent a new variation or integrate a past experience. The only control children have left is to aim, shoot, or change the channel. The feeling of power derived from shooting a television enemy cannot compensate for the lost sense of empowerment that being in charge of the play experience provides.

Interactive toys also have the potential to affect deeply the political and social ideas young children develop. These toys represent a new wave of war games that involve young children in battle, in killing and being killed. No longer one step removed from the child, the violence involves him directly.

The new toys and games make a statement to children about what is valued in society; they say that shooting is fun. Originating in the imagination of adults, these are not ideas young children would construct on their own. By choosing to create a world for children that glorifies war and by giving them toy guns that encourage them to participate in that world, adults run a serious risk of promoting more violent and militaristic views in children.

Young children in fantasy construct political ideas which they bring to their understanding of the real world--ideas about enemies, conflict resolution, and the nature of good and evil. There is no neat line dividing fantasy from reality in a young child's mind. It is especially difficult for children to keep the two separate when the names in the television cartoons have political significance in the real world--names such as Freedom Fighters, Pentagon, Russia, and the United States.

Images in the new interactive show "Captain Power," for example, depict the earth devastated by war in the 21st century, humanity enslaved by the enemy, and hope for the planet resting with a group called the Freedom Fighters. Such ideas will influence children's interpretation of the real political terms they hear.

Media and toys have become major agents in the socialization of children in the United States. Deregulation of children's television has opened the way for their growing influence. We have allowed arguments about free speech and a free-market economy to cloud our awareness of our social responsibility to children.

Although we say that parents are responsible for socializing their children and for monitoring their activities, parents are exhausted and demoralized from having to argue with their children over television and playthings. They report that whatever they do, they cannot shield their children from the pervasive influence of the media and the new toys.

There are limits to what parents can accomplish alone. Rather than place the entire burden of socialization on them, we must as a society assume the collective responsibility for providing children with a healthy, constructive climate in which to play and develop. The elimination of interactive toys would mark a significant beginning in the creation of such a climate.

Vol. 7, Issue 19, Page 15

Published in Print: February 3, 1988, as The Dangers of Interactive Toys
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