Meet the digital diapered set. As mere babes devour more and more online media while being baby-sat with the help of the Internet, the crib is becoming Americaâ€™s new tech incubator. And as app developers and gadget makers compete to corner the youth market, their innovations are fueling a national debate over the promises and pitfalls of being connected so young.
The folks at Boston-based Rest Devices, for example, probably never dreamed theyâ€™d kick a hornetâ€™s nest by launching Mimo. Slipped into a onesie, Mimoâ€™s sensor and microphone tells the smartphone-packing parent in the other room the babyâ€™s temperature, movements and position in the crib, offering 24/7 surveillance with a Bluetooth-transmitted soundtrack of their childâ€™s burps and babble.
Whether you consider Mimo an agent of Big Brother or the ever-vigilant digital assistant that mothers across the land crave, the trend it represents is touching nerves.
Itâ€™s also gaining strength. From baby-monitoring hardware, to games on an iPad attached to a Fisher-Price bouncy chair, to interactive learning tools for the under-6 set from startups like Kidaptive, technology is increasingly being woven into American childhood.
A recent study by Common Sense Media found that 38 percent of children under age 2 have used a mobile device for media, compared with 10 percent two years ago. Even larger increases were reported in tablet ownership among their older brothers and sisters, up to age 8. With companies literally hooking up technology to humans right out of the chute, wearable sensors are the tip of an onslaught of apps and tablet-based learning platforms. And that leaves some adults alarmed.
â€śItâ€™s Orwellian to have too much tech shoved into our kidsâ€™ lives at earlier and earlier ages,â€ť said San Jose English teacher Robin Edwards-Harvey when she learned about Mimo, which is marketed as a â€ścure for Mommy brain.â€ť â€śWith little kids getting addicted to things like game technology, I see this as part of a disturbing trend.â€ť
But app-makers tout the educational horsepower of their wares, and many parents say theyâ€™ve seen technology have a positive impact on their childrenâ€™s lives. Massachusetts mom Heather McGibbon, 35, says Mimo has been a godsend as she wrestled with her infant sonâ€™s stomach problems and erratic sleeping patterns. She says the benefits of the device far outweigh any concerns about invasive technology or abusive data-collection.
â€śThey claim theyâ€™re not viewing or selling my childâ€™s information and I have to take their word for it,â€ť she says. â€śSure, itâ€™s a scary world we live in with all the surveillance going on. But it wasnâ€™t the fact that someone could track my babyâ€™s biorhythms that was keeping me up at night ... it was my baby.â€ť
Despite the upside for parents like McGibbon, early-age digital engagement raises two concerns: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that screen-time of any kind for anyone 2 and younger could be detrimental to their development. Also, privacy advocates and others say we risk creating a â€śsurveillance societyâ€ť with all these new tech toys, forging a world where marketers will force-feed products to those far too young to opt out.
â€śWeâ€™re normalizing surveillance with these tech devices,â€ť says Josh Golin, associate director for the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. â€śAnd I think we need to ask who it benefits. The parents? Are we indoctrinating children into a society where their every movement is being monetized?â€ť
Junne Webbe of Mountain House east of Livermore doesnâ€™t see it that way at all. Describing herself and her Google-employed husband as â€śtechies from the 90s,â€ť Webbe says their 9-year-old son Aiden got his first laptop at 13 months â€śbecause we wanted to expose him early on to reading through educational apps. Within months, he was learning to type, and I have videos of him reading a book at age 2.â€ť
Webbe says she and her husband closely monitored Aidenâ€™s use of technology, adding that the third-grader now reads at an eighth-grade level â€“ thanks, she believes, to his early adoption of computers.
Other parents are more conflicted. While Morgan Hill mom Penny Polayes, 53, was impressed with what her two daughters have learned from an all-iPad program at Archbishop Mitty High School, she says â€śitâ€™s kind of disturbing to see a 1-year-old playing games on an iPad. Iâ€™m not sure if theyâ€™re learning properly and I worry that the technology may be detaching them from their environment.â€ť
Janet Lansbury, a Southern California-based early-childhood specialist who blogs about the subject, says newborns are wired to take in and learn from the world around them. And face-to-face interaction with a parent is far more natural than staring into a shimmering tablet, like the iPad attached to the controversial â€śNewborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seatâ€ť from Fisher-Price. Critics say the iPad â€śbouncy seatâ€ť encourages parents to leave their children with this â€śvirtual baby sitter,â€ť depriving kids of face-to-face time thatâ€™s essential to the developmental process.
â€śWhen a baby or infant sees a screen, itâ€™s like this bombardment of their senses,â€ť says Lansbury. â€śAdults can see a screen and filter the images, but babies canâ€™t. They see the glow and everything moving all around and they donâ€™t understand why that digital dog is there and it doesnâ€™t look like a real dog. Thatâ€™s confusing, and itâ€™s not something that they can learn from.â€ť
Lansbury believes that â€śby exposing them to this technology at such an early age, youâ€™re kind of subtly discouraging them from exploring their universe and encouraging passive rather than active thinking, which fosters their love of learning. Instead, youâ€™re fostering intellectual apathy.â€ť
Center-stage in Americaâ€™s too-young-for-tech-or-not debate is the question of whether self-described â€śeducational appsâ€ť actually help youngsters learn faster. With 72 percent of children age 8 and under having used a mobile device for some type of media activity, according to the Common Sense Media study, more parents are buying into the perceived benefits.
Yet many childhood-development experts remain cautious. â€śWe do know that children learn best through interaction with their parents, especially babies who see the expressions on your face and hear your voice,â€ť says Dr. Alanna Levine with the American Academy of Pediatrics.