Brave New World
We've seen an explosion of media targeted at those very same infants and toddlers who aren't supposed to be watching—including TV shows, DVDs, digital books, and a huge array of software and portable gaming platforms. But given the choice, kids prefer to use Mommy's or Daddy's devices. "When my 20-month-old son, Isaac, gets antsy in a restaurant, my phone is a lifesaver," says Tricia Callahan, of Dayton, Ohio. In fact, 60 percent of the top-selling apps on iTunes target young children, according to a 2009 analysis by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, which studies the role of digital technologies in childhood literacy. (Parents offers its own line of apps, including Flash Cards, which teach colors, shapes, letters, and math.)
Two-year-old Madeline Horwitz, of East Amherst, New York, is another early adopter. Having mastered the iPhone apps her parents downloaded for her by the time she was 1, she was ready to tap and swipe the day her dad, Jeremy, brought home an iPad. "We're a high-tech family; we see it as an investment in our kids' future," says Horwitz, a technology journalist. Madeline's favorite apps include Duck Duck Moose's Baa Baa Black Sheep, Fisher Price's Little People, Shape Builder, and Montessorium Intro to Math. Says Horwitz, "The iPad is unusual—it's fun, educational, and portable. And there's no mess to clean up afterward!"
Experts who are worried about how immersed kids have become in interactive media point to studies linking heavy screen time to obesity, difficulty paying attention, an inability to make real-world friends, dulled imagination, low academic performance, and increased aggression. More important, they argue, digital technology robs kids of the hands-on creative play that's so essential for development. However, other experts and parents applaud the fact that technology makes learning fun and engages kids in exploring and problem-solving. In one study, researchers in Massachusetts, Texas, and Pennsylvania followed children from preschool through adolescence and found that those who'd watched small amounts of educational TV as preschoolers placed more value on achievement, read more books, and had higher grades as teens than those who watched entertainment TV at the same age.
"For kids under 2, however, the jury's still out," says Ellen Wartella, Ph.D., professor of communication and psychology at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Most research has focused on the effects of TV and computer programs on kids preschool-age and up—and apps are just starting to be studied. A child may learn a letter that he sees on a phone app, much like he traces a letter on paper, says Dr. Wartella. "But we don't know yet if young kids learn anything from electronic media that they wouldn't learn otherwise, or what the long-term consequences are."