There is a good deal of controversy concerning the effects of digital technology (and the media it makes possible) on child development and health. Although pediatricians around the world recommend severely limiting young children’s’ access to digital devices, software companies continue to develop and market so-called “educational apps” for young children. How young? There are many apps aimed at 2-year old children, the so-called “toddler”. These are children who have learned to walk and are in the most vital period of language development. The relation of the development of language to the way we think has been the focus of a number of studies. In German idealism, the three capacities of uprightness, language and thought and their relation to one another were viewed as the primary signature of the human being, what set humans apart from their animal and plant brothers and sisters. Rudolf Steiner took this thought a step further describing how in the process of acquiring these capacities a child lays the foundation for future qualities of relatedness. The way a child comes to experience himself or herself in relation to the world is colored by the way they learned to walk, by the quality of authenticity in the language they imitate and by the clarity and steadiness of thought expressed in their surroundings.
How do young children respond to the educational apps? Here one mother’s description from The Atlantic: “My youngest child … was not yet 2 when the iPad was released. As soon as he got his hands on it, he located the Talking Baby Hippo app that one of my older children had downloaded. The little purple hippo repeats whatever you say in his own squeaky voice, and responds to other cues. My son said his name (“Giddy!”); Baby Hippo repeated it back. Gideon poked Baby Hippo; Baby Hippo laughed. Over and over, it was funny every time. Pretty soon he discovered other apps. Old MacDonald, by Duck Duck Moose, was a favorite. At first he would get frustrated trying to zoom between screens, or not knowing what to do when a message popped up. But after about two weeks, he figured all that out. I must admit, it was eerie to see a child still in diapers so competent and intent, as if he were forecasting his own adulthood. Technically I was the owner of the iPad, but in some ontological way it felt much more his than mine.” (Hanna Rosin, The Touch Screen Generation, The Atlantic, April 2013)
It is, as this mother aptly expresses it, eerie to see little children communing with such facility with what the digital world has to offer. What they find gazing into the screens of IPad, tablets or smart phones they seem to accept and interact with unhesitatingly. There does not appear to be anything there that induces feelings of antipathy or fear. Rather what they find there captures their attention and can keep them sitting quietly and outwardly engaged for long periods of time. Parents seem to welcome the respite from having to deal with children begging for attention. And although many adults quietly question whether these devices are, in fact, good for children, they give them to them nonetheless.
The presence of digital devices in the experienced life-world of growing children is something we must take seriously. For a growing number of children the virtual world accessed through the device is more real than the tangible world. It becomes the point of reference for the way they see and respond to what they meet in the world around them. In addition, it is the “place” they feel most at home, a tendency that is strengthened by parent’s anxiety towards the real world where real things happen, where children fall and skin their knees, tumble from trees, are roughed up by other children and generally encounter those things that help a person grow into himself or herself. Sherry Turkle posed the question so: ““When Thoreau considered "where I live and what I live for," he tied together location and values. Where we live doesn't just change how we live; it informs who we become. Most recently, technology promises us lives on the screen. What values, Thoreau would ask, follow from this new location? Immersed in simulation, where do we live, and what do we live for?” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, New York, 2011)
A half century ago the German educator Martin Wagenschein ventured that the development of scientific thought had led us to the point where we no longer felt at home upon the earth. The virtual world of digitalized experience is the continuation of this process of alienation. As educators we must find ways to ensure that our children do not lose their connection to the experienced living world of real presences into which they are born. We must give children the opportunity to immerse themselves in the mysteries and beauty of nature, to meet and engage with real people, to feel what it means to be an embodied presence among other embodied presences. Educational and other apps simply distract children from the real work of becoming human.