"Miles likes these things because they obviously fascinate us too. He also likes the response aspect of it, that feeling of having something react to what he does. At the same time there's an alien quality to the whole experience: It's very interesting to watch our son engage with something that, until maybe 30 years ago, children never encountered."
I can still remember my own first encounter, at a slightly older age than Miles' but no less formative: a vast shape waiting patiently, something big and flat, something else big and lumpy, with coils and lights. Someone guided my stubby hand to a lump and helped me whack it. I got the idea and whacked it again. Then ... the machine reacted! The big flat thing changed color! I whacked some more and it was clear - a connection existed between moving my arms and these wonderful explosions of light.
I'm pretty sure it was an IBM PC, and it changed me forever. Throughout my life computers and technology have left their mark on everything from the way I write to the way I learn. But in those early moments it was much simpler, much clearer: Here, far more than TV or music or even poop and vomit, was something with potential.
"There are moments that are funny but give you pause. Miles loves watching Dad play Braid. He laughs uproariously when the monsters are bonked off the screen. But then, after watching the 'rewind time' function in the game, he took to walking backwards for a brief while," his mother says. "I do wonder if there's an issue with content - beyond the usual suspects of violence, sex and bad language - in that his sense of reality versus art is probably not strongly developed at this point. Though I guess learning that something isn't real is also part of learning."
Along with the usual parenting activities like reading to Miles, talking to him and involving him in daily life, his mother now deliberately tries to get him out into the garden a few times a day for a complete non-tech break.
"There's obviously a part of him that's susceptible to, say, thinking that walking backwards is a legitimate way to go about his business. Now intellectually that's intriguing to me. But what's really going on?"
No one else knows what's really going on, either. There are many opinions, of course, credible and not, that range from complete technological abstinence for anyone under 5 to giving children iPods in the womb. (In Miles' case, his grandparents are split squarely down the middle on the issue, which sounds like a cue for honorary uncles to run for the hills around visit-time.) The market in giving convenient answers to concerned parents is as thriving as ever.
In terms of formal research, though, most of the major schools of thought on cognitive development and early childhood learning predate the internet age, and when researchers in the 1980s became interested in technology/learning connections it tended to be with older children in the context of formal education. There are still conflicting viewpoints on the structure of learning itself. Some believe there's a relatively set progression of skills - a ladder up which young children climb at various speeds but in unvarying order - while others think the ladder is an illusion, a construction of monocultural child-raising practices and misplaced assumptions. Recent research shows results (children exposed to technology early on display some clear advancement in problem solving and ability to understand more than one perspective) but is still shaky on the detailed mechanics of cognitive development.