Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gadgets for children: how good are they?

As parents, we tend to obsess about giving our children the very best in everything. There are products out there that entice you with claims about how they will help turn your child into an intellectual superkid! How good are these gadgets and DVDs? Can they do some harm? This report in the Time magazine explores these questions and has some answers.

... Most experts agree that what matters most is not what toy the baby plays with but the ways in which you interact with your child. "There's no question that the experiences a child has in its first year are crucial for cognitive, emotional and physical development," says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Chicago Medical School ... "But the good news is none of this costs any money. Babies prefer humans over anything inanimate."

One key difference between human interaction and even the most sophisticated educational toy is that interpersonal exchanges engage all the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste and, very important, touch. "People tend to forget that children are very tactile and their most sensitive part is their mouth," says David Perlmutter, a neurologist ... "Babies need to mouth things and to smell, to have rich sensory experiences."

This report refers to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation titled A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers [Caution: PDF]. The study covers a lot of stuff: TV, DVDs, video games and computer programs. One of the conclusions of this study is that there is, sadly, very little that's known about the effect of all these toys, gadgets and DVDs on how the child develops:

...To date there is remarkably little data regarding how learning-oriented electronic media products are used in the daily lives of young children, let alone whether they have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on their young users. In particular, child development experts argue that we need a much better understanding of media’s impact on brain development, future media use, and displacement of other activities. And educators want to see scientific outcomes research that uses comparison groups so they can make accurate assessments of whether media teaches children more or less effectively than other alternatives.