But not everyone is convinced an early introduction to skills like programming is good for children. One such person is Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of “Raising Generation Tech: How to Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”
“It’s absurd. Parents are so worried that their kids will be left off the tech train and they won’t make it in their connected society. But these kids are digital natives,” Taylor said. “What made the Sean Parkers, the Marissa Mayers, the Mark Zuckerbergs so successful was not that they knew how to write code. They knew how to think expansively, creatively, innovatively.”
To be clear, while Taylor said he felt the emphasis on technology for small children was “misguided,” he also doesn’t want to be labeled as a Chicken Little for technology.
“I don’t want to give people the idea that the sky is falling. But I do want to be Paul Revere: The techies are coming! It’s about being alert and aware of the effects,” Taylor said. “I love technology and that’s made me extra aware of both the concerns and the benefits.”
The benefits of technology aimed at young children have been called into question before, particularly the educational benefits of the "Baby Einstein" video series bought by Disney in 2001. The series swelled into related products like “Baby Galileo,” “Baby Shakespeare,” books and flash cards that enjoyed wild popularity in American homes. The products purported to engage an infant's attention with educational stimulation. The New York Times reported in 2009 that “a third of all American babies from 6 months to 2 years old had at least one ‘Baby Einstein’ video.”
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood appealed to the Federal Trade Commission, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children watch no television before age 2 and alleging that the videos held no educational value. After rumblings of a class-action lawsuit, Disney agreed to refund up to four "Baby Einstein" DVDs sold between June 2004 and September 2009 per household and the word “educational” was struck from the product entirely. Taylor is concerned that parents could be betting too much, too soon on technology to benefit their children's development and education.
“I think there are definitely going to be costs in children’s intellectual development, their social development and their emotional development,” Taylor said. “In 15, 20 years I might be proved totally wrong.”
If children growing up now don't start learning digital skills, they might pay for it in ways society is just beginning to grasp, Canadian game developer Ryan Henson Creighton says.
Creighton is the founder of Untold Entertainment, a Toronto-based company that spearheads an initiative called Games for Kids, which hopes to get kids involved in technology early. He's a firm believer that most kids should be exposed to programming skills by the third grade — at the latest. Part of the danger, he says, is that children aren't prepared for the jobs that await them.
"Because they’re facing a future that’s filled with knowledge work, our goal should be to help kids become creators, not just consumers. As Douglas Rushkoff put it, ‘The aim is to program or be programmed,’ but we’re not teaching programming," Creighton said in a TEDx talk. "Most public-school students don’t learn how to program a computer until they’re in the 10th or 11th grade and even then, the course is elective.”
According to the Computing Research Association, future jobs lie with computational skills. The association projected that between 2006 and 2016, new and replacement jobs for computer specialists made up 62 percent of science-based jobs, compared to jobs in other sciences and engineering. For projected new jobs created, they made up 70 percent.
If a generation grows up in awe of technology without mastering it, they will be controlled by it or the people who understand it fluently, Creighton contends.
“It’s kind of like in the Middle Ages when mass was conducted in Latin and you had entertainers outside the church retelling the liturgy in common language so that people could understand it," Creighton said. "If you don’t read Latin, the seat of power is with the person who does. You’re a peasant at the very best.”
Gupta says American children are already behind. The idea of the robots was born, he said, out of a concern that American children would be left behind as other countries like Estonia began mandating computer programming education in children as young as 5. He's hoping that products like he Play-i robots will level the playing field between digital "peasants" and those in the know.
“They need to learn how to create technology and how it works,” Gupta said. “They’re going to be controlled by it if they don’t know how it works.”
With speaking engagements and consultations throughout Canada, Creighton is slowly converting the unbelievers.
In a presentation Creighton recently made for the Toronto Public Library, he projected an image of a child hunched over on a couch, a handheld video game inches from his face. He let the audience react for a moment to his statement of, “We all hate to see this,” and then mirrored it with a photo of a child sitting in a similar position, reading a book. Point made.
“The misconception is that it’s bad for you and I think parents and educators need to stop dismissing it, get involved and find the value there,” Creighton said. “Because it’s there in spades."