Feature

Years ago, if you gave a kid a lump of Play-Doh, she might roll it around in her hands and shape it into a ball, a lion or some other figment of her imagination.

These days, kids are more likely to look at that lump, scratch their heads and say, "What does it do?" said Diane Levin, PhD, at a session on the effects of electronic media on childhood.

Levin said examples of what she terms "problem-solving deficit disorder" can be seen in children who are so used to staring at a screen while playing electronic games that they don't know how to play creatively. Making things worse are the messages that children get from these overly structured and directed activities, she said.

"What we have is a huge clash of cultures between what parents, families and society want to teach children about what it means to be a person with good values and the messages given by popular culture," said Levin, co-author of "So Sexy, So Soon" (Ballantine Books, 2008).

The intense marketing toward children started in the early 1980s when the government relaxed regulations on the advertising of toys and products to children. Now, toys are even being used to market other toys, with cell phones and electronic games, Levin said.

The convergence of sophisticated technology and unfettered commercialism is a "disaster" for American children, added Susan Linn, EdD, author of "The Case for Make Believe'' (New Press, 2008). Linn, who also spoke at the session, co-founded the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood with Levin and serves as its director. Before deregulation, she said, corporations spent about $100 million a year advertising products to kids. That spending has now mushroomed to $17 billion annually. Such practices, she said, are linked to childhood obesity, eating disorders, youth violence and early sexualization.

Not knowing how to play creatively and playing electronic games in isolation also means that children are losing the traditional lessons of play, which help them make sense of the world and learn how to interact with peers, Linn said.

Psychologists can help parents push back against the trends, Linn says. One example of success came last year, when in response to a letter-writing campaign, Hasbro shelved a plan to market dolls to young girls based on the Pussycat Dolls -- a pop group known for their scanty dress.

"They will not be coming to a toy store near you," she said.