Smarter Tykes, Dumber Grown-ups?

At work recently (I nanny), I took a break from playing Cozy Martians (in which baby Lego aliens excel at the art of the sleepover) to check my email. “Be right back, Erol,” I said to my three-year-old charge. I was expecting an important message and don’t own a smart phone, so I walked to the back of the apartment to grab my laptop. By the time I returned, about 60 seconds later, Erol was sprawled on the floor next to his iPad, fully engrossed in Disney Pixar’s Cars. I hadn’t even heard him get up.

Erol may be new to life, but in some ways he’s already surpassed me. While I’m still calling 411 on my Verizon LG Cosmos to locate nearby opthamologists, Erol and his five-year-old sister, Neve, are whiling away the hours on their very own iPads. Their parents are bona fide technology folk — former and current employees of Amazon and Microsoft — who always have the latest and greatest in gadgets. Smart phones, Kindles, iPads, and laptops sit alongside coloring books and toy cars throughout their apartment. It’s only natural that their children would be so well versed in technology; the intuitive genius of an Apple touchscreen is only proven to be that intuitive if a three-year-old has very little trouble using it. Since the iPad entered their tiny worlds, Neve and Erol have taken to rubbing their fingers along most dark and shiny surfaces, and it’s a strange, albeit amusing disappointment that registers on their faces the moment they realize that the object in question doesn’t have an integrated touchscreen.

Neve and Erol are part of a new generation being reared on smart technology, spawning obligatory speculation about the impact that this will have on their adult selves, the same way the now-40 crowd once deliberated the future of those of us born under the rising sun of the Internet. (Look how distracted and overstimulated we are! How entitled!) But smart technology takes the whole instant-gratification thing to an entirely new level. Where I spent my early childhood manipulating arrow keys to move blockily rendered computer-game characters, Neve and Erol can stream their favorite dancing turtles in high-def with the touch of a finger.

A decade ago, my grandparents valiantly struggled to incorporate e-mail into their lives (to varying degrees of success). Neve and Erol’s grandparents, in a similar state of adaptation, are currently attempting to insert iPhones into their daily lives. (“I can’t use that damn touch-texting stuff,” said Grandpa Bob on a recent visit to Texas.) But will these older folks, as they age and face tremors, arthritis, and the like, still have fingers that are up to the task of manipulating smart technology? Or will technology advance to accommodate them?

The, Oy, what are these young people on about? conversation might be nothing new, but its content consistently is, and watching Neve and Erol chase icons across a screen with their small fingers had me wondering just how young they’re making technophiles these days. You can thank YouTube and over-eager parents for the following gems:


 

 
Despite the mixed bag of emotions I feel watching a two-year-old like Bridger working an iPad (awe and fear; baby-lust), I can’t help but wonder: seeing this barely verbal youngster do something that some adults do all day long…how much smarter are we getting? If an iPad symbolizes the advanced efficiency of contemporary society, but if toddlers — a people decidedly not advanced nor efficient — can use it with the same dexterity as adults, then where does that leave us?

The point of all this fast-moving technological progress is partly to create a more efficient society, which demands more cursory than close reading skills; as Nicholas Carr wrote back in 2008, the brain “now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” Maybe this doesn’t mean we’re getting dumber; maybe it only means that the ways in which we process information are changing. But if, more and more, we process information in a way that is entirely easy for tiny tykes to grasp as well (and considering the minuscule attention span and digital dexterity of a toddler, this could be a gigantic red flag), then I would say that the progress we’re making looks suspiciously like one step forward, two steps back.

Except for Angry Birds, of course. That’s the definition of progress.