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Personal Technology

Why an iPhone could actually be good for your 3-year-old

Parents who hand smart phones to their preschoolers as a distraction are shocked to see how quickly the kids become pros. They may worry about such early screen time. But for this generation of “mobile kids,” portable, wireless technology promises to improve the way they learn.

By Neil Swidey
November 1, 2009

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Most parents, grandparents, and baby sitters will be able to relate: You’re in a supermarket line that refuses to budge, and your preschooler is about to lose it. Or you’re at a restaurant, and he won’t let the adults complete a single thought. Or you’re on a crowded airplane, and he’s getting antsy, and you begin to feel the disapproving glares from the grumpy businessman to your left and the eye-rolling retirees to your right.

Hoping to distract him, you hand him your cellphone, figuring it will buy you a few moments of peace. It’s no mystery why little kids race to elevators to make sure they get to push the button. They crave power. Yet if your cellphone is a no-frills Nokia or a stripped-down flip, you know the peace will be brief. A preschooler can press the numbers on a phone only so many times before losing interest.

Unless, of course, it’s an iPhone. Hand one of those -- or a similar smart phone -- to a 3-year-old, and you’ll see how profoundly different the experience can be. If he’s never held an iPhone before, he will examine it from all angles. He’ll touch the big circular button under the screen, then he’ll touch all over the screen, then every button he can find hiding on its slim sides. In other words, he’ll do exactly what someone should do when encountering a new piece of technology (provided there’s a service plan to cover the inevitable drops and damage). Because the iPhone is perfectly sized for little fingers and is operated using colorful icons and an intuitive touch screen rather than a mouse or keyboard, the preliterate preschooler has no trouble making it his own. Before long, he’ll be swiping across the screen with the confidence of a college kid in a coffee shop, leaping from app to app. And he’ll be completely engrossed.

I say this as someone who doesn’t even like the iPhone. I have never worshiped at the altar of Jobs, and have, in fact, always preferred the dowdy PC. Whenever I borrow my wife’s iPhone and try to bang out a text or an e-mail, my thick fingers seem to produce every letter except the one I want. But I can see how quickly our youngest daughter has become a pro with the device, despite being just 4 years old and unable to spell anything more than her name.

She belongs to a new generation. These “mobile kids” are the purest breed yet of natives to the wireless world where the rest of us are refugees. Their fluency with technology and expectations of instant access to everything will eclipse even those of their older siblings and cousins, the “digital kids” weaned on desktop computers wired to the Web. This is why my 4-year-old is incredulous when I can’t honor her request to replay the Taylor Swift song we’ve just heard on the car radio. She simply can’t comprehend how something electronic could be beyond our personal control, even if we’re talking about public airwaves.

Companies have already rushed in to take advantage of this rapidly emerging market. Sixty percent of the 25 top-selling paid applications in the education section of the iTunes App Store target toddlers and preschoolers, according to a new content analysis by Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Designers and marketers are determined to exploit the “pass-back” phenomenon, wherein parents let their little ones use their expensive smart phones, only to see the children become so comfortable with the devices that they increasingly demand more time with them.

And there’s the catch. Parents’ satisfaction with the peace a smart phone can buy them will likely be followed by pangs of guilt. This is especially true for those who refused to fall prey to all that Baby Einstein bunk, who resisted the pressure to get the built-in DVD player in the minivan, and who continue to limit their kids’ time in front of the TV. That’s because a preschooler’s attachment to a smart phone sneaks up on parents. By the time they realize what’s going on, it already feels too late. It becomes yet another medium to be monitored and negotiated over. As for the guilt, most parents know there are dangers to letting children spend too much time glued to a screen. Pediatricians say kids shouldn’t log any time in front of the tube before they turn 2, because it can diminish the direct interaction with caregivers that babies need for healthy brain growth and cognitive development. And researchers have found that the more TV kids watch, the more likely they are to be overweight. It’s not unreasonable to expect those findings could be extrapolated to apply to the screens of smart phones. Parents may worry that, in exchange for heading off a tantrum, they might have unwittingly set their child down a perilous path.

But here’s the tantalizing part: If done the right way, with the right limits, handing a preschooler a smart phone could be good not just for the parents’ sanity. It might even be good for the child’s development.

*****

Warren Buckleitner is the founder of Children’s Technology Review, a sort of Consumer Reports for kids’ technology. He has a PhD in educational psychology and has spent more than half of his 51 years reviewing children’s tech products. By now, he’s heard all the empty claims about how the next wave of technology would transform the way children learn, leveling the playing field for kids of all means and even accelerating their progression through the developmental stages outlined by the pioneering Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Yet observing today’s mobile kids has left him more excited than he’s ever been about the technological revolution in education. “The future that we envisioned for so long is finally starting to happen,” he says. “I’d love to bring Piaget back from the grave and give him an iPhone.”

Piaget saw child development as a march from the concrete to the abstract. Children move from the sensorimotor stage (roughly birth to 2 years old), where their experiences rely solely on their senses and motor skills, to the preoperational stage (2 to 7), where they begin understanding symbols, such as pretending a broom is a horse, to the concrete operational stage (7 to 11), where they use logic to understand how, for instance, five oranges spread across a table is the same quantity as five pushed together, to, finally, the formal operational stage (12 and up), where they can fully understand abstract concepts.

What has Buckleitner so excited is the way in which the iPhone -- or the iPod Touch, the cheaper version that has most of the same functions except the phone -- allows the preschooler to manipulate symbols, jumping easily from concrete to abstract. On the screen, a child can see a picture -- a concrete symbol -- of, say, a starfish, and then hear the word spoken, and then see the letters s-t-a-r-f-i-s-h -- an abstract symbol -- and then view video footage of an actual starfish in its natural environment. Most important, the child is the one controlling this movement -- all through her sense of touch. The iPhone may not accelerate a child’s progression through Piaget’s stages, Buckleitner says, “but it will fill up each stage more and make it a lot richer.”

Because the ambling pace of academic research can never keep up with the warp speed of technological innovation, it’s far too early to know what kind of impact this will have on the brain and behavioral development of preschoolers. But there are plenty of promising signs.

For starters, mobile technology promotes so-called “anywhere, any time” learning. While waiting in a supermarket line, parents can connect to childrenslibrary.org on their smart phone and read their child a selection from the world’s largest collection of free digitized children’s books. Or they can use the phone’s camera to play an improvised “find the shapes” game, identifying the rectangle in a pack of gum or circle on a Life Savers pack.

WGBH interactive producer David Peth is helping develop an iPhone app for Martha Speaks, a PBS show focused on oral vocabulary. It will be the station’s second app designed to complement its educational programs. He’s noticed how much more quickly kids adapt to the iPhone’s touch-screen functioning compared with the mouse, keyboard, or joystick on other platforms. And for software developers, it opens up endless opportunities to marry the game with the world around the kids. To develop a park scavenger hunt game for the Web, Peth says, he’d need to create the trees and benches and squirrels that would appear on the screen. But for an iPhone app, all he has to build is a way for kids to interact with the trees and benches and squirrels in a real-life park. Best of all, the child is running around and getting fresh air while playing this app, rather than sitting idly inside, staring at a computer monitor.

Mobile technology also promises, finally, to help close the digital divide between affluent and low-income kids, which yawned so wide during the wired Internet era. With desktop computers, the divide was one of access; poorer kids lagged far behind their more well-off counterparts. But almost all children in the United States now have access to a cellphone, and more than half the world’s population owns one. To date, more than 50 million iPhones and iPod Touches have been sold worldwide. As computer power goes up and price points go down, plenty more people across all income groups will have smart phones before long.

But if access is becoming less of a problem, the challenge now is one of use, according to Michael Levine, who runs the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which studies and promotes technology in learning and is named after the inspiration behind Sesame Street. Lower-income kids get lots of screen time, but they are much more likely to use it for entertainment rather than educational purposes.

A study by University of Michigan sociologist Amy Hsin found that children’s cognitive test scores rise with each additional hour their mother has spent with them, provided that the mother herself has a robust vocabulary and scores well on verbal skills tests. For moms with lower verbal skills, the more time they have spent with their children, the worse their children’s test scores turn out to be. Hsin’s work builds on a classic study that found children on welfare begin school having heard an astonishing 32 million fewer words spoken to them than their classmates from professional families.

But what if the “anywhere, any time” learning afforded by mobile technology could help arm less educated parents with the tools to minimize that disadvantage? A PBS Kids study suggests there is promise here. Several times a week, parents below and above the poverty line received cellphone messages that contained tips on how to incorporate letter recognition into everyday routines with their preschoolers. Then came streaming video clips in which Elmo introduced the letter of the day, followed by a Sesame Street clip about that letter. Parents reported that, after participating in the study, they were more likely to initiate literacy activities with their children.

A report called Pockets of Potential, released earlier this year by the Cooney Center, captures the hope for mobile learning seen by about 30 noted researchers and advocates. “Just as Sesame Street introduced children and their families to the potential of television as an educational medium two generations ago,” the report’s author, Carly Shuler, writes, “today’s children will benefit if mobile becomes a force for learning and discovery in the next decade.”

Sesame Street’s 40-year legacy is not all good, of course. It spawned a raft of cynical pretenders who cluttered the airwaves with commercialized junk, and it led to many parents parking infants and toddlers in front of the tube before they were developmentally ready. Yet there’s no doubt that, on balance, the show has been a positive force. If the iPhone can do for mobile kids what Big Bird did for the children of the ’70s, that will be a very good thing. It’s hardly a sure thing, though.

*****

For a reality check, I went to see Dr. Michael Rich. He’s got impeccable credentials -- director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, practicing pediatrician, associate professor at Harvard Medical School. His center has become an important clearinghouse for research on the impact of media on children’s health. He talks persuasively about the toll that too much media exposure can have on kids’ waistlines and aggression levels, as well as their resistance to pressures about alcohol, cigarettes, sex, and drugs.

When I ask him about preschoolers taking so easily to smart phones, he first shares some of his concerns. If parents aren’t careful, he worries this early exposure might get their children hooked, ratcheting up their media intake to unbalanced levels. Then there’s the greed of the marketplace. In late September, Apple announced that the number of total iPhone app downloads had passed the 2 billion mark -- the total, amazingly, had doubled just since April. With so much money to be made, will the pollution of all the empty-calorie apps for kids snuff out the truly educational ones? If you want to see where things are headed, do a simple search for apps that mention the word “fart.”

But here’s what makes Rich’s perspective so valuable. In a field where some children’s advocates view all media as bad while industry-bought voices speak only gee-whiz-ese, Rich opts for nuance. He rejects the notion that parents try to seal off their child from all media, arguing such a tactic can lead to forbidden-fruit bingeing the first time the child gets to call the shots. The 55-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair still believes in the power of media to be a force for good. After all, this is a guy who, before entering med school at age 33, spent a dozen years in the film world, at one point serving as assistant director to legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

For Rich, media consumption is like nutrition -- all about moderation and smart choices. Too much TV may cause a host of problems, but good research has shown that preschoolers who watch appropriate amounts of educational TV are actually better prepared for school, and those advantages continue through their high school years. He is also optimistic about the ways in which smart phone apps can provide genuinely interactive experiences that make use of more of the child’s senses. As with anything, parents need to stay involved and not use this latest form of electronic media as an always-on baby sitter. “You know what?” he says, picking up his iPhone. “It’s here to stay. Let’s learn to use it in ways that help us and learn to turn it off when it’s not helpful.”

Rich has two children from his first marriage, who are now in their 20s. And he has two boys, ages 5 and 3, from his current marriage. He let his older kids watch TV when they were very young because he didn’t know any better. But he was careful to keep his younger boys away from the tube until they turned 2½. He believes that’s the reason his younger boys are less passive about learning. They go out and seek it rather than expecting it to come to them.

This Rich is happy about. For the most part. His 3-year-old now has no problem grabbing his father’s iPhone and navigating to YouTube to play clips of Kipper, the dog from the animated Nick Jr. show of the same name. The boy also enjoys using the iPhone to take photos of his mother -- even once snapping several pictures as she was emerging from the shower. Rich and his wife are just relieved that their 3-year-old hasn’t figured out how to post those photos online -- yet.

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.