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Kids And Tech: How Much Is Enough?

On the question of kids and screen time, educators and cognitive scientists still have more questions than answers.

Cue holiday shopping music. A camera pans around a typical suburban living room strewn with wrapping paper and boxes. It comes to focus on an 18-month-old baby lying on her belly. Her wide, gleeful eyes are lit by the glow of an iPad on the floor in front of her as she stabs at the moving images on its screen with tiny, curious fingers.

As the modern world has embraced computing as a basic life skill, parents have come to view their kids' interaction with electronic devices as an admirable development on the path to becoming a competent adult. And most parents, especially first-time parents, are looking for signs of precociousness in their children.

We've all heard parents brag about their very young kids and technology: "Danny already knows how to unlock Mike's Android. Can you believe it?" Did moms and dads in the 1930s gush to friends when their tykes correctly dialed the knob of the family's Victor Orthophonic Victrola radio?

[Raise your kid the IT way. Read Parenting Tips From IT Pros.]

But educators and cognitive scientists still aren't sure what the long-term impacts are of exposing very young children to smartphones and tablets. Interactive screens -- a relatively new feature -- have largely eliminated the need for typing skills. Remove the keyboard, and you remove the last input barrier for very young children.

The early state of the research hasn't stopped some professionals from issuing scary warnings, such as pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan's column, 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12. But Rowan mixes older research on the negative effects of passive TV watching and violent video games with much newer studies about interactive, computer-mediated experiences.

Instead of banning devices, some experts advise parents to integrate technology into their interactions with their children, creating a shared experience. Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight -- Research-based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old, a guide released by the nonprofit Zero to Three, offers an example.

Other early-childhood experts cite potential benefits to being computer-savvy at a young age. For example, some research indicates that hand-eye coordination is faster in kids who use technology -- something you might have witnessed first-hand if you've ever watched a middle schooler navigate Minecraft.

Speaking of speed, does being connected to the Internet create fast, self-sufficient learners? It can be argued that children with different learning styles now have many more options, from e-books to YouTube videos and, on the horizon, virtual-reality headsets.

Nevertheless, experts say the neuroscience simply isn't in yet. While longitudinal studies on the effect of technology on children wind their way through the peer-reviewed journals, here are a few tendencies some educators have observed in their students.

  • Memory lapses: One college professor I spoke with pointed out that things that were once committed to memory -- such as phone numbers, addresses, and birthdays -- are now saved to devices. He expects such "outsourcing of memory" to become more prevalent.
  • Unease with stillness: American culture has never been defined by quiet, meditative moments, but we seem even less inclined to disengage and reflect now that we can reach for powerful, always-connected systems in our pockets.
  • A decline in "social reciprocity": Are skills honed during face-to-face play being sacrificed with increased screen time? If so, how will this affect adult competencies around empathy, cooperation, and collaboration?

The questions remain: How should we interpret these observations and use them to advise parents and teachers? What will these behavioral and cognitive traits mean in the future workforce, and how should employers prepare for the next generation of workers?

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