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Too early adopters?

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Date posted: January 17, 2013

“Are kids technology’s new early adopters?” That provocative question was posed by Dominic Basulto on Big Think.

His curiosity was piqued by innovations in augmented reality created by Disney and Sesame Street that debuted at the International Consumer Electronic Show.

Infant and ComputerMarketers have traditionally thought of early adopters as tech-savvy 20- t0 30-somethings. The cool people who are always on the cutting edge of trends. Now, however, children, even very young children, are growing up in a digital environment. Most of us know someone whose toddler has mastered a smart phone faster than mom or dad. Millions have seen the You Tube video of a two-year-old puzzled by why a magazine is not interactive, like a tablet. The very young have a natural affinity with technology and seem to figure it out effortlessly.

From a marketing perspective, it may make sense to start thinking about very young children as early adopters. That may be the wave of the future. But, as parents and educators, we should think this through.

Some claim that our technological society is conducting a massive experiment on child development without knowing what the result will be. The use of these digital tools is rewiring kids’ brains in ways we do not understand, they say. Others note that many kinds of experiences and technologies mold the brain. Books rewired brains and led to some of the same kinds of widespread cultural shifts we’re experiencing now.

There is some evidence that well-designed apps can help children learn. Nicholas Negroponte, of One Laptop per Child, has described an experiment in which iPads were delivered to villages in Ethiopia that had never had electricity and, within hours, children were figuring out how they worked. Ultimately, Negroponte thinks those children will learn to read through using the tablets and will teach their parents.

However, new technologies often have unimagined consequences that are not immediately apparent. Does the near-constant availability of digital stimulation lead to shortened attention spans or manual dexterity and faster reaction times? Does multitasking enhance or degrade performance? The jury is out.

One thing child development experts agree on is that kids need a variety of experiences, including play and exploration out in the natural world. Examining and manipulating something in your hand is a different experience than rotating a digital representation on a screen.

As adults, we should be able to weigh the pros and cons of immersing ourselves in a new technology or media experience. Kids are far less able to make a rational choice. It’s unrealistic in this busy world to expect we can completely shield kids from technology; that we won’t be tempted to let Johnny play with a tablet so we can get dinner on the table or pay the bills. What we can do is set limits on technology use, ensure that our children have a wide range of experiences out in the parks, playgrounds and neighborhood yards and, most importantly, interact with kids—read to or with them, play catch, have them help with housework, encourage imaginative play. And we should talk with them about the media they do use, helping them learn media and information literacy.

A tablet is a remarkable device but it can never do what a mom or dad can to ensure a child grows up happy, healthy, and ready to learn.

Image: (Infant & Computer) Microsoft Office Clip Art