A popular pep rally cheer for baby apps and other screen-based media for young children is that they develop skills offering advantages in the New Digital Economy: “Watch baby slide the screen and open things on that iPad! He’s going to be Steve Jobs!” A related wail is an anxiety air rad siren warning that children raised low-tech will “fall behind.” How far behind a baby/toddler could fall is a good question, as watching videos isn’t exactly complex, nor pressing flashing buttons, and software and gadgets are designed to be easy to use at any age (except Microsoft, maybe). If anyone should find tech difficult, it’s parents who grew up in a world where it didn’t exist, and we seem to adapt pretty quickly.
Both cries imply that normal developmental stages are like software, today’s children representing 3.0 or 4G upgrades of the laughable analog creatures we were. Unfortunately – or fortunately – they are hardware. They do not change quickly, unless your time scale is geologic. Thus, we must interpret learning and experience – the stuff we feed to kids to help them learn, including media – in this context. Children: small, analog humans primed to grow and do great things.
And so, a key question: which ecosystem of experience is the most robust? Analog or digital? Which offers the greatest learning opportunity? Which is more memorable? The answer is: the one that’s most open-ended and prone to exploration, i.e. the real world. Not that technology is bad, that we can or should go back, or that today’s conveniences aren’t super cool. The real world is simply a really important – indeed critical – place for a child to spend quality time.
Consider pets: Fido vs Webkinz. Does caring for a digital pet fed with tokens and who can’t actually die teach a child responsibility, empathy, or how to read behavioral cues, i.e. when it is sick, happy, or prone to bite? Fine motor skills: will sliding and poking to dress an e-doll enhance manual dexterity more than figuring out real snaps and buttons? Ball: which teaches more about the physical world, a ball on a screen defined by a programmer or a real ball, on variable terrain under the influence of real gravity?
The better teacher: Eebee or people? And what of books – is reading a word that flashes yellow as it is read by a chipper cartoon voice more advanced than sharing a book with a real person, asking questions, adjusting pace, and identifying words and pictures based on self-generated curiosity?
And how about the most existential challenge of all, “boredom:” is it more instructive to learn to cope, calm, and create, or press a button?
All parents want what’s best for their kids. A central message of Baby Unplugged is reassurance that, because of hardwired developmental stages, “old-school” – Blanket, Pets, Yard, Ball, Book – is exactly that. The real risk of falling behind in the digital age is in traditional skills, those where technology and the distraction it brings, gets in the way. Though traditional skills are perceived as a given – e.g. “all children love nature, and are curious and creative” – they are learned, and take time, focus, and practice. They are also best learned in early childhood, when growth and caregiver engagement are at their peak. Kids afforded maximal time to practice will be at a major advantage. Computer skills are important but will come later – this is unavoidable, and many of us prone to work at our computers at night and on weekends often wish it wasn’t.
Herein, opportunity: the first three years. Shorter than college, but far more potent. And with a guarantee: unplugged babies will be the leanest, strongest, most curious, creative, calm, confident, and self-motivated, with the longest attention spans, of their peers. They will run circles around them. Given this analog base, like the founders of Intel, Oracle, and Apple, they will also be the ones who will go on to assimilate what they’ve learned with the tools of the digital world. And importantly, they will be more likely to see technology in its proper context – as a tool. Not as replacement for people, or face-to-face/pet interaction, or creating something from imagination.
I was impressed by an excellent article about this issue in the Christian Science Monitor forwarded by a friend: Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play.
I welcome your thoughts and feedback. Which kids do you think will have the advantage? At what age do you think they should learn to use technology?