Magic happened the first time Wall Street Journal technology reporter Ben Worthen let his 2-year-old son use an iPad.
During all five hours of a cross-country flight, the child happily immersed himself in the iPad via age-appropriate content such as kids' games, an app for drawing and "Curious George" cartoons. Indeed, the boy intuitively grasped how to operate the device that Worthen had borrowed for his son to use on the plane.
Worthen and his wife eventually bought their own iPad, and shortly thereafter they noticed their son's awareness of and interest in letters increase as the boy played word games and puzzles on the touch-screen tablet. And in a pinch, the iPad was always ready to step in as a de facto baby sitter if and when the Worthen family's newborn second child required immediate attention.
But the Worthens also observed a darker side to their son's iPad usage: he fixated on the screen so intensely that he wouldn't respond when his parents called his name, and the boy whined incessantly when asked to put the iPad away.
Following some hand wringing and debate, the Worthens ultimately decided to take the iPad away from their son. Two weeks of iPad withdrawals ensued, but the boy (now 4 years old) adapted and today he rarely inquires anymore about the device.
Even though the strategy successfully stamped out the whining spells, Worthen remains ambivalent about the decision.
"I don't know — I'm not convinced that taking it away was the right decision," he said. "But I haven't figured out a really good strategy for moderating it."
Worthen's experience is characteristic of an emerging trend among families with young children: the elegant simplicity of touch-screen devices such as iPads and iPhones permits kids to actively engage technology at increasingly younger ages. But the touch-screen phenomenon is so new that no definitive scientific research exists to show how iPads may affect the mental development of young children. As a result, parents are armed with little more than intuition and anecdotal evidence as they make potentially impactful decisions about when and how to introduce touch-screen technology into their kids' lives.
Finger-friendly at any age
Last year the nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media set out to gauge the state of media consumption among young children. The resulting research study, "Zero to eight: Children's media use in America," illustrated the rising popularity of touch-screen devices. Chief among these are the iPhone and iPad — first released in 2007 and 2010, respectively — which in many cases aren't any older than the children using them.
The "Zero to eight" findings concluded, "Half (52 percent) of all children now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home: either a smartphone (41 percent), a video iPod (21 percent) or an iPad or other tablet device (8 percent)."
Furthermore, the survey revealed that for children under the age of 5, the use of touch-screen smartphones and tablets is already on par with more established technologies like computers and video-game consoles.
"The (touch-screen) interface is something that kids don't even need to learn because it's so intuitive," said Common Sense Media parenting editor Caroline Knorr. "It is very easy for kids to figure it out because they aren't afraid of technology, like some parents might be intimidated by it. The platform really offers the ability for designers and game developers to provide a game experience that's just so unique — (both) broad and deep."
Too new to know
The prevalence of touch-screen devices is so new that no on-point scientific research exists on the topic — a dynamic that, in the Information Age, amounts to a veritable rarity.
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