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Digital Guilt: Mommy, Her iPad, and Me

Just a few short months ago, the prospect of toddlers packing iPads was the stuff of drollcartoons. Today, it's how we live our lives.
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There are two kinds of parents in the world. The kind who would sooner hand their pre-school child a smoking grenade than an iPad app -- and the normal kind. Yet the practice still has the power to hit parents' digital guilt buttons. What's up with that?

Just a few short months ago, the prospect of toddlers packing iPads was the stuff of droll New Yorker cartoons. Today, it's how we live our lives.

From the pre-schooler wrestling Dad for a turn on Angry Birds to the six-month-old hunkering down with a bottle and a fresh download of AlphaBaby, the number of kids tapping, pinching and stroking their parents' touchscreens has exploded in past 12 months. Literally tens of thousands of kid apps for Apple and Android devices are now available, and more than a quarter of U.S. parents say they have downloaded at least one of them, according to new research by Common Sense Media.

Maybe the tablet isn't exactly the new teddybear -- yet. But our kids are clearly voting with their feet, in many cases before they've even learned how to crawl. Frankly, it can be hard to know whether to laugh, cry or just press pause.

Twelve months ago, the British parents advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, awarded its worst toy of the year award to the Vinci, a pricey kids' tablet computer, fully loaded with an Itsy Bitsy Spider app. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new report repeating pretty much what it's been saying for the past 12 years: that under-twos should have no exposure to screentime at all.

"Young children learn best from -- and need -- interactions with humans, not screens," the AAP scolds. As far as redeeming educational value goes, there isn't any, the report goes on. Not for this age group.

As a mother of three teenagers who cut their teeth on a keyboard, metaphorically and otherwise, I hear those words and want to commit virtual hari kiri with a sharpened flashdrive. As a communication researcher, I am comforted by the certain knowledge that a screen is not a screen is not a screen.

We have been through a bona fide information explosion since the AAP issued its first guidelines about children and television. Has the Academy noticed?

I find myself wondering if these people have ever actually observed an 18-month-old in a teeny-tiny flow state on Toddler Counting, which is all about counting cows and strawberries with your finger, or BabyPlayFace, which teaches (or, okay, shows) kids words in different languages through animated baby faces and, at a quarter of a million downloads, is sort of the Da Vinci Code of baby apps.

This is not the digital equivalent of parking the baby in front of an endless loop of Barney videos. On the contrary, the discernible degree of engagement and delight is as plain as the nose on your BabyPlayFace. If what's happening here is not learning, it's hard to know what else to call it.

The iPad is emphatically not a television -- though of course it can be used as one, which is partly where the confusion lies. The tablet is a genuinely multi-media device, and offers a bewildering diversity of multi-media uses. Sure, it can be used to watch Sixteen and Pregnant, or to set up Baby's First Fan Page. It can be used as the platform for apps like Gorepad: Blood, Guts & Carnage -- or for apps like Drawing Pad, a digital art kit which is to a box of Crayola crayons what Lao Tse is to a fortune cookie.

The medium is the message, most assuredly. But this medium is a conglomeration of so many different media. That's problem -- and the promise.

Of course kids learn best from other human beings. But let's not forget that was exactly the argument given by Socrates for prohibiting reading and writing. (Luckily his star pupil, Plato, chose to ignore the advice, which is how we know the argument in the first place.) Our media are extensions of ourselves, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out back in what my kids call "the black and white days." Apart from anything else, that means media have the potential to extend our humanity, too.

Not to mention our patience in a long line at the checkout.