Quick quiz: Which baby is developmentally ready for what they are doing?
Answer: None of the above!
There are many things – activities, rights, or rites of passage – that we wait to do. We wait to wean infants until they are able to digest, chew, and ultimately feed themselves, solid food. We make teens whine until their sixteenth birthday to drive a car. It’s twenty-one to drink beer, legally at least. Eighteen to marry. And the consensus is that these are for very good reasons. The operative term is maturity. Physical, psychological, developmental readiness.
With that in mind, how about this one?
For many of us, this concept gives us pause. Likely because technology is involved – implying circuits, programming, science, Silicon Valley, and other high-IQ stuff – there is a prevailing notion that electronic media is not only benign, but good for any age. There’s even a sense of excitement and inevitability regarding today’s “digital natives” – children exposed to e-media from the cradle. What wonders await them! If computers make grownups smart, connected, productive, and even rich beyond comprehension, imagine the benefits to children afforded the opportunity to hone their skills from infancy. After all, childhood is when they learn, right?
The answer is wholeheartedly yes on the learning side, but a glassy-eyed, colicky no on the tech one. Despite countless marketing claims, there is no evidence that early exposure to technology and screen-based media has any benefit for young children. They simply do not learn well that way, unless learning to watch more counts. The real world, its inhabitants, and ample opportunities to play with both, are their ideal curriculum. And as I’ve discussed in other posts, there is plenty of evidence that plugging in young carries significant health and developmental risks. Entertaining, yes – as driving a car, drinking beer, and playing with knife and fork would be…in the short term. Constructive and a good idea – not so much. Like it or not, technology is fundamentally a grownup thing, best for relatively mature, grownup brains. And even grownups have a hard time using it in a balanced way, still finding time to focus on a family meal or go outside.
So the short answer: that baby isn’t ready, either.
There are very good reasons that we wait to do things. While newer and sleeker video game systems, programming, and gadgets emerge faster every year, human developmental needs and stages stay pretty much the same. They are not upgradable. This is why these notions seem silly: 2 month old “food natives” eating steak, 3 year old “transportation natives” driving cars, or toddler “family natives” settling down to raise kids. Each of these they must wait for. Health and safety aside, if they didn’t, life wouldn’t be nearly as fun.
Our current enchantment with the iPad illustrates this well. Recently, a viral video (akin to photo, above) showed an infant apparently trying to turn pages in an e-zine, raking the screen with her fingers. This was taken as a sign that she was adapting to it, implying a revolutionary learning tool and that children will be incredibly skilled and smarter with early use. The reality is, the infant was raking as all 6-7 month olds do on any surface hosting interesting objects. She was trying to pick something up that wasn’t really there. Being new to the 3-D world, this 2-D fake-out was surely odd and frustrating, albeit engrossing. The bottom line: this did not aid in skill development, unless confused smudging counts. It also does not imply computer skills. Babies are very concrete and practical. At this age, they should be raking real things, in preparation for a maturing pincer grasp that will someday allow them to feed themselves – utterly, critically, and eternally Baby 1.0/1G stuff. Infants have no place using an iPad. iPads can’t feed them, love them, nor hold them, and other than banging or chewing them – which would be discouraged – aren’t useful playthings. Crackers and blocks, on the other hand…
One key to the problem is that technological advancement has far outstripped our ability to define its proper place. It’s hard to keep something in perspective that upgrades every few months, lays claim to our quick-fix dopamine receptors, promises all manner of hip happiness, and makes cool/weirdo noises. Combine that with potent “educational” marketing, and no wonder we lose sight of the fact that using and processing it effectively requires maturity. At the same time, our children’s deep-rooted, analog, mammalian need to connect with the real world and real people is as critical as ever. Crawling-tricycle-bike-car. Reality-reality-reality-technology. A tech driver’s license may be a stretch, but better-defined societal standards and a commitment to the importance of unplugged childhood would go a long way towards keeping the human highway safer and more scenic.
How old do you think children should be to start using technology? What would you allow first?