iPad for baby stirs debate

2012-04-26 12:40
A child with autism uses an iPad at the Key School. (Jenni Gous)

A child with autism uses an iPad at the Key School. (Jenni Gous)

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Paris - Twenty-two-month-old George sits on a tiny blue chair, at a baby-sized desk, playing with a grown-up toy - an iPad, sign of a powerful trend that has set alarm bells ringing among child development experts.

For his mother Aurelie Mercier, 32, the beauty of iPad apps is they can expand her son's world, like a virtual piano that lets him play music in the absence of the real thing.

"It's a window onto tons of things that we don't have at home and that can be condensed into a very small object," she said.

Fuelled by the likes of George, the number of baby and toddler apps is booming, according to Heather Leister who has reviewed child applications at US website theiphonemom.com since 2009.

But psychologists and parents are divided on putting smartphones and tablets into such young hands, a high-stakes issue considering how pivotal the first couple of years are to child development.

Simplicity

Experts at a panel discussion in New York during March entitled "Baby Brains and Video Games" urged parents to set limits on electronic device use - while acknowledging the magnetic appeal of iPads in particular.

"You can't pull it from their hands," said panellist Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children's Technology Review.

George, who spends a half hour per week with the iPad, first asked for it at 10 months by pointing and cooing in its direction.

Both graphic artists, his parents recently developed their first app, which generates firework-like images to save as screenshots.

Though geared toward adults, Mercier lets George play with it, talking softly as he sends yellow stars swirling around the screen.

Now they have seen first-hand what toddlers like - catchy colours, sound, large buttons, simplicity - the pair plan to develop child-friendly apps.

"We'll use George as our beta-tester," Mercier said. "We're counting on him to give good advice!"

For Katie Linendoll, a CNN technology expert in New York, apps are "the ultimate babysitter". Her favourites for using with her toddler niece - in moderation - include Crazy Piano! and Crayola Color Studio HD, a high-tech colouring book where animals move once coloured.

Computer culture

"If you have an app that's simple to understand, a kid will run with that," Linendoll said.

But some parents worry about computer culture interfering with the way their children play with conventional toys.

Sarah Rotman Epps, a Boston-based consumer technology analyst, said her two-year-old son "loves drawing on paper with crayons".

"But he gets very frustrated when the pictures don't move, and I think that is really coming from the pervasive culture of video and animation."

This is what troubles Paris child psychiatrist Serge Tisseron who worries apps fail to teach children to properly apprehend three-dimensional space, a key developmental milestone.

"We know the toddler absolutely needs to engage all his senses," he said.

Sensory experience

Tisseron is by no means anti-technology - the 64-year-old is himself an avid video gamer - but until more research has been carried out he recommends keeping screens out of baby hands.

In the first two years of life the brain triples in size, synapses forming as young children experiment with objects they sniff, bite and throw.

Despite the iPhone and iPad's much-lauded interactivity, Tisseron said they remain limited in terms of sensory experience: They can engage sight, hearing and touch - to an extent - but not taste or smell.

That's where the simplest of toys, and baby games with no set rules, are crucial, said Texas paediatrician Ari Brown, lead author of a 2011 American Academy of Paediatrics report on screen use by children under 2.

"There are some pretty good apps and activities that encourage problem solving, memory, ordering, sequencing - virtual versions of games we used to play as kids," Brown said.

A hit YouTube video dubbed A Magazine is an iPad that Does Not Work shows a 1-year-old trying in vain to scroll tablet-style through a print publication on her lap.


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