Since the advent of the iPad in April 2010, younger and younger children have been drawn to the bigger and brighter version of the iPhone. In many North American family homes that new piece of mobile digital technology instantly became part of the family and, in some cases, was mixed-in with the other children’s toys. Toddlers were fascinated by the iPad and its magical touchscreen technology. Swiping a live screen produced an immediate electronic response that made shaking a rattle or knocking over a pile of blocks seem pretty tame. It quickly became, what American children’s media expert Warren Buckleitner has described as “a rattle on steroids.”
Today parenting and educating young children tends to involve some form of interaction with digital technology. Gone are the days when homes only had one television, reserved for the parents or rationed with scheduled viewing times. Now smartphones and iPads can be found on most tables and kitchen counters within easy reach of those little arms and impossible for very active toddlers to resist. Thousands of kids’ apps have flooded onto the market. Awash in digital devices, childhood is undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes.
Like every other new medium since the dawn of the TV age, the touchscreen device has been roundly condemned by many parents and a host of early learning specialists. One of the earliest critics of the proliferation of computer screen technology was Dr. Jane M. Healy, author of the 1990 best seller Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It. She is famous for coining the term “zombie effect” and for raising serious concerns about exposure to television and later to computers in the early years of education. The much revered TV show “Sesame Street” attracted her critical eye, and she took a dim view of the program because it encouraged “a short attention span” and “failed to address the real educational needs of preschoolers.” Her 1999 book Failure to Connect extended her critique and raised alarm bells about the dangers of exposing young children to computers.
Early digital technology skeptics like Healy were gradually overtaken by the digital revolution. Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics still discouraged television viewing by children under 2 years of age. Childrens’ doctors strongly advised that time was far better spent in “direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers.” Pediatricians continued to urge caution, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of parents reported that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media. That was before the spread of “iPad” app pacifiers and even iPad toys for toddlers.
Technology popularizer Marc Prensky, the IT zealot who coined the term “digital natives,” has encouraged young children to experiment freely with iPads and other mobile devices. “The war is over. The natives won” says Prensky in explaining why he lets his own 7-year-old son watch unlimited amounts of TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and play to his heart’s content with iPads and every other conceivable form of media. More common is the approach taken by Sandra Calvert of the Georgetown University Children’s Media Centre who allows young children to experiment, but tries to guide them “to make best use of it.”
More than two decades after the appearance of Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy, has slightly adjusted her thinking and now advises caution and using digital technology in moderation. “Meaningful learning — the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future , ” Healy writes, ” occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today’s youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes.” Schools of the present and future, she now recognizes, need to come to terms with the reality of IT and close the gap between traditional teaching and personal digital learning. “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.” That sounds like promoting a convergence of old ways with new the digital technology world.
Children are becoming “digital natives” at younger and younger ages. What’s the impact of increasing exposure to touchscreen technology on the brain development and behaviour of the tiny tots? How wise is IT guru Marc Prensky in allowing his young son to play with technology at any time with few if any limits? Why has Dr. Jane Healy changed her position on the dangers of early exposure to TV and digital technology? Is moderation and responsible use still possible in our touchscreen mad world?