This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the impact of technology on kids and teens. Read part two: How digital screens are changing the way we read. Read part three: How the Internet affects teen identity.
As an elementary school teacher, Warren Buckleitner was quick to embrace the brand-new, intimidating tool in his 1980s classroom: An Apple II computer.
“I saw really how powerful it was for my students,” Buckleitner said. “I had a few kids who were very hard to teach, and I was able to use that computer to help them get a good report card.”
Today, Buckleitner is the founder of the Children’s Technology Review, an online resource that reviews all kinds of technology aimed at young kids. Now 55, his focus has shifted a lot from the Number Crunchers game that came on that first Apple II, but his vision hasn’t budged.
Like a growing number of tech industry innovators, educators and parents, Buckleitner is passionate about the new and changing ways technology can help kids get an edge in the digital world. But does honing these digital skills early help children, or does it have risks parents and experts don't yet see?
Saurabh Gupta is the co-founder of Play-i, a company whose goal is to make programming tangible for children as young as 5.
If that seems young, it’s actually considered a good age to introduce computational thinking. A recent study of programming at Tufts University found that children as young as 4 could grasp and implement simple robotics programming, in some cases in as little as one week of concentrated work.
The study also found that kindergarteners could learn concepts behind engineering and programming while developing motor skills, hand-eye coordination and learning teamwork.
Gupta and a group of developers created robots they call Bo and Yana, which children control using the touch interface of a device like an iPad. While the fact that they’re programming the robot is largely hidden from the child, Gupta says they’re learning critical thinking skills that apply to development on all levels.
“A lot of people believe that programming right now is what reading and writing used to be 100 years ago. It’s almost at that level,” Gupta said. “Our goal is not to build an army of programmers. We’re going to teach them a skill that will help them no matter what they do.”
The techies are coming
But not everyone is convinced an early introduction to skills like programming is good for children. One such person is Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of “Raising Generation Tech: How to Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”
“It’s absurd. Parents are so worried that their kids will be left off the tech train and they won’t make it in their connected society. But these kids are digital natives,” Taylor said. “What made the Sean Parkers, the Marissa Mayers, the Mark Zuckerbergs so successful was not that they knew how to write code. They knew how to think expansively, creatively, innovatively.”
To be clear, while Taylor said he felt the emphasis on technology for small children was “misguided,” he also doesn’t want to be labeled as a Chicken Little for technology.
“I don’t want to give people the idea that the sky is falling. But I do want to be Paul Revere: The techies are coming! It’s about being alert and aware of the effects,” Taylor said. “I love technology and that’s made me extra aware of both the concerns and the benefits.”
The benefits of technology aimed at young children have been called into question before, particularly the educational benefits of the "Baby Einstein" video series bought by Disney in 2001. The series swelled into related products like “Baby Galileo,” “Baby Shakespeare,” books and flash cards that enjoyed wild popularity in American homes. The products purported to engage an infant's attention with educational stimulation. The New York Times reported in 2009 that “a third of all American babies from 6 months to 2 years old had at least one ‘Baby Einstein’ video.”
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood appealed to the Federal Trade Commission, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children watch no television before age 2 and alleging that the videos held no educational value. After rumblings of a class-action lawsuit, Disney agreed to refund up to four "Baby Einstein" DVDs sold between June 2004 and September 2009 per household and the word “educational” was struck from the product entirely. Taylor is concerned that parents could be betting too much, too soon on technology to benefit their children's development and education.
“I think there are definitely going to be costs in children’s intellectual development, their social development and their emotional development,” Taylor said. “In 15, 20 years I might be proved totally wrong.”
If children growing up now don't start learning digital skills, they might pay for it in ways society is just beginning to grasp, Canadian game developer Ryan Henson Creighton says.
Creighton is the founder of Untold Entertainment, a Toronto-based company that spearheads an initiative called Games for Kids, which hopes to get kids involved in technology early. He's a firm believer that most kids should be exposed to programming skills by the third grade — at the latest. Part of the danger, he says, is that children aren't prepared for the jobs that await them.
"Because they’re facing a future that’s filled with knowledge work, our goal should be to help kids become creators, not just consumers. As Douglas Rushkoff put it, ‘The aim is to program or be programmed,’ but we’re not teaching programming," Creighton said in a TEDx talk. "Most public-school students don’t learn how to program a computer until they’re in the 10th or 11th grade and even then, the course is elective.”
According to the Computing Research Association, future jobs lie with computational skills. The association projected that between 2006 and 2016, new and replacement jobs for computer specialists made up 62 percent of science-based jobs, compared to jobs in other sciences and engineering. For projected new jobs created, they made up 70 percent.
If a generation grows up in awe of technology without mastering it, they will be controlled by it or the people who understand it fluently, Creighton contends.
“It’s kind of like in the Middle Ages when mass was conducted in Latin and you had entertainers outside the church retelling the liturgy in common language so that people could understand it," Creighton said. "If you don’t read Latin, the seat of power is with the person who does. You’re a peasant at the very best.”
Gupta says American children are already behind. The idea of the robots was born, he said, out of a concern that American children would be left behind as other countries like Estonia began mandating computer programming education in children as young as 5. He's hoping that products like he Play-i robots will level the playing field between digital "peasants" and those in the know.
“They need to learn how to create technology and how it works,” Gupta said. “They’re going to be controlled by it if they don’t know how it works.”
With speaking engagements and consultations throughout Canada, Creighton is slowly converting the unbelievers.
In a presentation Creighton recently made for the Toronto Public Library, he projected an image of a child hunched over on a couch, a handheld video game inches from his face. He let the audience react for a moment to his statement of, “We all hate to see this,” and then mirrored it with a photo of a child sitting in a similar position, reading a book. Point made.
“The misconception is that it’s bad for you and I think parents and educators need to stop dismissing it, get involved and find the value there,” Creighton said. “Because it’s there in spades."
Technology in moderation
While time will tell what the true benefits or consequences are of early honing of digital skills, proponents of tech for young kids advocate moderation.
“Everything needs to be modulated. If there’s anything your child is doing in excess, it needs to be stopped,” Gupta said. “But technology is going to play an important role in educating our kids. It’s not something we need to protect them from.”
Buckleitner’s advice is to not take advice and try not to limit a child’s potential talent for technology.
“There’s nothing more tragic than a child that’s gifted like Mozart who never touches a musical instrument. We really can help a lot more children learn and live to what their potential is,” Buckleitner said. “You can be a pessimist or an optimist. There’s a lot of pessimists who think it will ruin childhood, but there’s a lot of room for optimism.”