Skepticism is wise about “brain” toys & games for kids, seniors

Yes, the ancient adage caveat emptor still rules in the high-tech age. It may have sounded so simple, nice, and sweet to plunk grandma and grandpa in front of a computer screen to let them run a program to play games touted to help them prevent the cognitive ravages of age. It may seem wonderful, easy, and convenient to give little boys and girls talking toys in hopes of boosting their smarts, especially with enhanced language skills.

If only.

Just a short word to the wise: A major online “brain games” maker has agreed to pay $2 million to settle with the Federal Trade Commission. The agency had asserted that Lumosity made unfounded claims to deceive consumers that playing the company’s 40-some, 10- to 15-minute-long games would help them “perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.”

The agency’s consumer protection chief observed: “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” The agency said those ads promoted Lumosity widely on  “TV and radio … networks including CNN, Fox News, the History Channel, National Public Radio, Pandora, Sirius XM, and Spotify.”

The doubts about cyber workouts as a deterrence to mental decline, especially due to age and diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, are formidable. That also doesn’t mean that there isn’t serious, extensive research under way about using technology to assist those with cognitive impairments, say, from stroke, as the New Yorker recently described. And even after the Lumosity fines were imposed, debate raged about software’s benefits to our mental hardware.

But, hey, if you’re a doting mom or dad or uncle or auntie and you dropped a pretty dime or two on one of the hot talking toys of the holiday season, keep your hopes in check, please. Maybe you also might want to shelve that high-tech gadget, especially after considering the many media reports on the topic of talking toys, and a JAMA network-published study finding that: “Play with electronic [talking] toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”

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