Could the spread of touchscreen computing devices such as smartphones and tablets be turning today's digital natives into even younger touch-savvy tikes?


A new generation of children being reared by digitally connected parents are not only comfortable using touchscreen computers, they are intuitively touching screens and flipping through apps with ease. And no wonder; it's not uncommon to see a mother or father handing a smartphone to young kids these days, even infants, as a replacement for rattles and pacifiers -- not to mention the impact of mimicking their parents who are addicted to the devices themselves.


Some parents view tablets and smartphone computers as developmental tools, especially when sharing the experience and providing a healthy balance between entertainment, education and physical activity.


"Digital native" was a term coined by author Marc Prensky in 2001 in his book "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." It refers to anyone who was born after the transition from analog to digital and who generally has a greater understanding of the digital technologies from an early age. But that is now evolving into a generation raised on touch and like everything else, it seems to be the proliferation of smartphones that is driving it.


A recent study by BabyCenter, a leading website for pregnancy and parenting information, surveyed more than 5,000 mothers in the United States and found that adoption of smartphones among mothers rose 64 percent in the past 2 years. More than half of mothers surveyed said they purchased a smartphone as a direct result of becoming a parent. While mothers said the camera had become the most important function of the phone, apps to help keep life organized and their kids entertained had evolved from being unnecessary to essential.


Looking at several parenting blogs and child development websites, and talking to new mothers, the debate over what role technology should play in a child's life is still raging. It's also not going away anytime soon.


"I have spent a lot of time talking to my son's pediatrician and doing research on the merits and downsides of screen time," said Mia Kim, a mother of a toddler and editor-in-chief of Popgadget, a blog about personal tech and innovative lifestyles for women. "I'm honestly a little bit of a skeptic about the dangers," she said.


Kim exemplifies the type of parent who sees mobile phones, video games, portable music players, television and computers as developmental tools for children, especially when parents share these experiences and provide a healthy balance among entertainment, education and physical activity.


"It seems like there's a lack of information about this new territory with tablets being scary by default," said Kim. "What it comes down to is that it's bad to leave your child on his own to do nothing but stare at a screen, but that's pretty much common sense, isn't it?"


Even though many parents like Kim share concerns about potentially damaging impact of technology on children who are getting too much screen time, there seems to be growing acceptance of exposing infants and toddlers to Internet computing devices.


"My son recently turned 1 and he can say his ABCs -- OK, well sort of, just the letters he likes -- but I owe that to the books we read together, and lots of them we read on the iPad," said Kim.


Mike Wilson is a musician and father of a 2-year-old boy who can swiftly and precisely flip through his favorite applications on his very own iPad.


18-month old Sawyer Aakre is already a natural on the iPad and his mother’s iPad.


In the YouTube video description for Baby Works iPad Perfectly. Amazing Must Watch!, Wilson says his son's speech, understanding and word recognition has improved dramatically as a result of playing with the iPad. "Even hand eye coordination has improved within just a short while. I am so amazed and thankful for this amazing learning tool … I want to say thanks to Apple and all those that have given my child such a head start in life with this amazing instrument."


"At 18 months old, my son already knows how to do the iPhone swipe," said Intel employee Kari Aakre. "Luckily he doesn't know my password to unlock my phone just yet. I've downloaded a few apps and games for him, and he really has fun with it, even though he isn't really old enough to know what he's doing. He just sees Mom and Dad on these phones all the time, so he wants to play, too."


If numbers are an indicator, there will be a giant leap in the population of babies born to touchscreen mobile devices. Consider the iPad, which sold 7 million units just in the past 3 months of 2010, according to Apple. If Gartner research estimates pan out, there will be 55-70 million tablets shipped by the end of 2011.


Add to that the meteoric rise in sales of smartphones, which increased 72 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to research firm Gartner Inc. About 101 million smartphones were shipped in just the past 3 months of 2010, according to IDC.


And yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still recommends that parents of young children should limit any screen time, including television and computer devices, to no more than 2 hours a day.


Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and member of the AAP, recently told the New York Times that smartphones should be no exception. "At the moment, we seem to feel it's the same as TV," she said.


According to Kim, her pediatrician told her "no TV" until her boy was at least 2.When asked about reading books on computers, Kim's doctor replied, "If it's a screen, it's no good until he's at least 2. Put your little guy in front of an iPad and he won't be talking even when he's in kindergarten," she recalled the doctor saying.


Child development experts such as O'Keeffe say that parents of infants and toddlers should emphasize eye contact, conversation, whole-body movement and dexterity with a variety of objects versus spending time on a single device, touchscreen or not. But some psychologists are beginning to acknowledge that it's important for parents to stay involved in their child's digital life, without giving up control and getting rid of all screens.


Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. and Tristan Gorrindo, M.D., in their Psychology Today blog Digital Family, recently advised that "during preschool years, children are mimicking the behaviors of adults, so parents should be particularly mindful of their own technology use during family time (dinners, playing outside, etc.). Imaginative play is to digital play as fruits and vegetables are to dessert. A child's diet should have a healthy serving of nutrient rich play."


Fishel and Gorrindo encourage parents spend screen time socially or collaboratively whenever possible rather than turning to tech as a digital babysitter.


"I'm a little surprised at the vehement no-tech, no screen stance," said Kim. "The world is simply changing and we have to adapt. I don't think it's all good or all bad."

Kim said she listens to her pediatrician and follows all the important rules, but she also trusts her instincts.


"Know if your child is enjoying and benefiting from computer time," she said. "If your child isn't interested, don't push it, and if they are, and are clearly engaged and learning things (my baby knows some "selections" from the ABC song from an alphabet app), then practice moderation and make sure your toddler gets plenty of non-screen time, too."

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