Feature

Forget passing notes on the playground--that's so 1995. Chat rooms and e-mail are the way to go, if you're of the preteen persuasion. And for younger kids, we can dispense with the flashcards. Many 3- and 4-year-olds are already facile with software programs that coach them on their ABCs and 1-2-3s.

The swift proliferation of interactive and digital technologies in the past decade--from cell phones and digital television to computer games and the Internet--has transformed children's daily routines and sparked both excitement and worry among parents, educators and policy-makers.

"With every new technology of the 20th century, there have been public concerns about both the promises and the perils that technologies serve for children, and it's been no different in the digital age," said Ellen Wartella, PhD, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, speaking at the Oct. 23 conference, "Digital childhood: A research agenda on human development and technology."

There can be little doubt that this digital immersion affects kids' cognitive, emotional and social development. But how, exactly? Should one be jubilant or cautious?

In the last several years, Wartella said, "there's been a growing concern that in spite of all the hype, we may not have an adequate research base from which to assess what we know about the developmental consequences of children's use of interactive technology."

At the daylong conference, whose sponsors included APA and the Decade of Behavior, more than 100 representatives from academe, advocacy groups, federal agencies, foundations, journalism and industry discussed what is known about how the new media shape children's development and began to lay plans for filling in the gaps.

Interactive media offer valuable opportunities for children, said psychologists and communication researchers at the conference. Studies indicate that the media can promote prosocial behavior, that some computer games can hone visual intelligence and that classroom use of the Internet links children with distant mentors and resources, enriching the way kids learn.

Even aspects of the digital age that have raised concern among parents and educators may be blessings in disguise. For example, the amount and diversity of information available on the Internet, while potentially harmful because of its often uncertain origins, may also foster critical thinking, suggested some researchers.

To be sure, there are risks that accompany digital technology. For example, observed psychologist Patricia Greenfield, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, one common concern has been that although digital technology has boosted children's talent for multitasking, their ability to process information deeply may be deteriorating. Research cannot yet allay that concern, she said.

Other researchers pointed to more unanswered questions: How similar are the effects of the digital media to those of television? How do the new media affect infants and very young children? Do parents and teachers adequately monitor and participate in children's use of computers and other media? How do interactive media affect young people's developing identities?

But, the experts warned, tallying the pluses and minuses of the digital age is the wrong approach. Instead, they maintained, it's important to recognize that the effects of interactive technology on children's development are likely to be more complex.

"I've tried to get across that computers are not good or bad--they're powerful," said Sherry Turkle, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That's hard to get across, because there's anxiety about the technology. People come back and say, 'Yeah, but really, bottom line, are they good or bad?' I think we're getting ourselves into trouble in thinking that there's an Internet or a Web that has had an impact on children....Some children use the Internet to expand their knowledge of other kinds of people and places, and others use the Internet to really bore down and make their world smaller and smaller."

The conference fell at "a historical moment," said Kathryn Montgomery, PhD, president of the Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C. "The emergence of a new kind of media...creates an opportunity to do it right this time--to really think at the outset about what kind of media we're going to create for children."