May 18, 2011— -- Would you give your smartphone or iPad to your toddler to play with or learn with?
A recent study of 5,000 women by Babycenter.com showed that the overall adoption of smartphones among moms has risen 64 percent over the past two years and 51 percent of moms say they are "addicted" to their smartphone.
The study also says that 75 percent of moms regularly hand their phones over to the kids.
And now an interesting trend has emerged where App makers are marketing directly to parents who are looking to help their children as young as 4 months old get a head start on learning.
Learning With Technology
Search YouTube and there are hundreds of videos with babies as young as 2 months playing virtual synthesizers, counting games and lots of alphabet games.
Type in "toddler" and "educational" into iTunes and you'll find more than 800 apps specifically marketed to children under age 3.
Toys R Us is now selling the iPad and PC world named the iPad the best toy of the year for young children.
One town in Maine is spending $200,000 on iPads for its entire incoming kindergarten class.
But do ipads or smartphones and toddler marketed apps really make young kids smarter?
Does Technology Make Kids Smarter?
Many parents like Mia Kim, a blogger and founder of a tech site for gadget lovers are convinced of it.
Her 14-month-old son Finn has his own iPad.
"Around 9, 10 months he started really sort of getting in to it," she said. "I think in this day and age, he does have a head start being so good at just navigating through his own iPad."
Kim has downloaded more than 75 apps for Finn and said he recognizes letters.
"So definitely it's sinking in there," she said.
What are the Benefits?
PBS did a study showing benefits in kids 3 to 7, but for infants and toddlers, there doesn't seem to be any thorough research into the claimed benefits of these educational apps.
Some pediatricians say handing kids an iPad is pretty much the same as letting them watch television.
"(We) recommend that children under the age of 2 don't have any screen time whatsoever," said Dr. Alanna Levine of the American Association of Pediatrics.
But Levine adds that if you interact with your toddler while playing an iPad game that may be ok for short periods of time.
In a non-scientific experiment to assess these learning apps, I let my 3-year-old twins play with the First Words Animals app and a counting app called Toddler Teasers Numbers.
Angela Booker, a professor and educational researcher at the University of California, Davis watched as I let my kids play with the apps unsupervised.
She helped me decipher the kids' experience.
At first, it seems like they're absorbing all the information and significantly learning.
My son seemed to recognize letters and words.
As a parent, I beam with pride thinking he's practically reading -- that he's learned his letters.
But then I bring flash cards out with the very same words from the game and ask the kids, "Do you know what this word is?"
They answer a resounding no to every word.
The same experience happens with the numbers.
When I asked Angela if she was surprised, she said the games weren't specifically teaching the kids to verbalize the numbers, but more to visually recognize matches of shapes.
The letters and numbers were shadowed in the game where the children drag them in to match.
"A big part of learning is going from what we know and understand and making connections to the new things we're taking in. If you're not there with them, interacting with them while they're engaging with the iPad, you're not going be able to make those other kinds of connections," Booker said.
Levine said parents need to keep their hopes for apps in check.
"Just because you see a child apparently spelling by pushing a letter, that doesn't necessarily mean that they actually know how to read and spell," Levine said.
While no studies prove apps make toddlers smarter, there's no clear research that shows they hurt children.
But for parents who can't imagine shelling out $500 for an infant's toy, Levine says not to worry.
"Parents are always looking for that edge to make their child the smartest but I think the most important thing you can do as a parent is interact with your child. You don't need an iPad or a fancy tablet to make your child learn."