Twenty-two-month-old George sits on a tiny blue chair, at a baby-sized desk, playing with a grown-up toy — an iPad, sign of a powerful trend that has set alarm bells ringing among child development experts.
Leaning over the tablet, the little Parisian finger-stabs the duck icon on Moo Box, an application with animal images that let out moos, oinks and barks.
For his mother Aurelie Mercier, 32, the beauty of iPad apps is they can expand her son’s world, like a virtual piano that lets him play music in the absence of the real thing.
“It’s a window onto tons of things that we don’t have at home and that can be condensed into a very small object,” she said.
Fueled by the likes of George, the number of baby and toddler apps is booming, according to Heather Leister, who has reviewed child applications at US Web site theiphonemom.com since 2009.
However, psychologists and parents are divided on putting smartphones and tablets into such young hands, a high-stakes issue considering how pivotal the first couple of years are to child development.
Experts at a panel discussion in New York last month entitled Baby Brains and Video Games urged parents to set limits on electronic device use — while acknowledging the magnetic appeal of iPads in particular.
“You can’t pull it from their hands,” said panelist Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review.
George, who spends a half-hour per week with the iPad, first asked for it at 10 months by pointing and cooing in its direction.
Both graphic artists, his parents recently developed their first app, which generates firework-like images to save as screenshots.
Though geared toward adults, Mercier lets George play with it, talking softly as he sends yellow stars swirling around the screen.
Now they have seen first-hand what toddlers like — catchy colors, sound, large buttons, simplicity — the pair plan to develop child-friendly apps.
“We’ll use George as our beta-tester,” Mercier said. “We’re counting on him to give good advice.”
For Katie Linendoll, a CNN technology expert in New York, apps are “the ultimate babysitter.” Her favorites for using with her toddler niece — in moderation — include Crazy Piano! and Crayola Color Studio HD, a high-tech coloring book where animals move once colored.
“If you have an app that’s simple to understand, a kid will run with that,” Linendoll said.
However, some parents worry about computer culture interfering with the way their children play with conventional toys.
Sarah Rotman Epps, a Boston-based consumer technology analyst, said her two-year-old son “loves drawing on paper with crayons, but he gets very frustrated when the pictures don’t move, and I think that is really coming from the pervasive culture of video and animation.”
In a nutshell: a hit YouTube video dubbed “A Magazine is an iPad that Does Not Work” shows a one-year-old trying in vain to scroll tablet-style through a print publication on her lap. This is what troubles Paris child psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, who worries apps fail to teach children to properly apprehend 3D space, a key developmental milestone.
“We know the toddler absolutely needs to engage all his senses,” he said.
Tisseron is by no means anti--technology — the 64-year-old is himself an avid video gamer — but until more research has been carried out, he recommends keeping screens out of baby hands.